Decision time

We spent most of July in Huahine, one of the Society Islands 100 miles northwest of Tahiti. We were back in volcanic mountain territory surrounded by amazing reefs and blue, blue water. Definitely one of my favourite islands so far. It has a gentle beauty to it; very green, covered not so much by coconut palms (although they were still around) but more by banana plants and graceful umbrella-like trees (I still haven’t been able to find out what they are) and a whole host of vibrant flowers – gardenia, hibiscus, trumpet flowers, bougainvillea… The friendly locals take a pride in their home making it one of the best-kept islands we have had the privilege to visit.

As elsewhere, the waters around Huahine are simply stunning. The sea is so clear and pristine that we could easily see our anchor 10m down on the seabed as well as the bommies (coral heads) which sometimes felt just a little too close for comfort. That said, we did miss the fact that our chain had become tangled up at one anchorage, only noticing when we hauled up an old motorbike when weighing anchor!

The reefs are abundant with life, giving us one of our best snorkelling experiences to date: the “Nursery” at Motu Vaiorea in Bourayne Bay. As soon as we entered the water we were surrounded by hundreds of the most colourful and varied baby reef fish. Initially we were surprised that they seemed to be “nibbling” on us, but it soon dawned on us that they were used to being fed. On our second visit, we took some old bacon along and delighted in them eating out of our hands. I’m sure there are mixed feelings about this, which I understand, but such close interaction with nature really was a thrilling experience.

On day three, seven of us decided to do the 60km circumnavigation of the island by e-bike. We had perfect weather for it and, as there is basically only one road, there was little chance of us getting lost. The bikes were brilliant; there is no way I would have made it up those hills without the assistance and the views from the top were well worth the small amount of effort required to get the bike’s battery to kick in. Half-way round the pull of the sea got too much for the boys and they insisted on a “John Smith” bombing-style entry into the lagoon (one, in particular, in his underpants! Has he no shame? Apologies for the next photo.)

To our surprise (and contrary to seasonal norms), there was a lot of rain during our time in Huahine, but that did nothing to stop our fun. Being a small island, we had ticked off all the “must see” attractions on our bike ride: the ancient Marae (temples), the ancient village meeting hall, the ancient stone fish traps (still used to catch fish today) and the sacred blue-eyed eels (which can bite, as one of our friends discovered to her detriment). This left food and drink as our entertainment for the rest of the stay, and the yacht club, local café, Izzy’s burger bar and the local hotel (complete with pool which they allowed us to use as they had no other guests!) got to know us pretty well. Probably too well! And when we weren’t ashore, we had each other’s yachts to socialise on. What more could we ask for?

The weeks flew by and before we knew it, it was the middle of July. Time to make a decision. Do we continue to hang around in French Polynesia in the hope that the way west opens up before the cyclone season or do we leave the yacht in Pape’ete, fly home and hope to return next year to continue the circumnavigation? It was looking less and less likely that Australia would allow us in and, although Fiji had opened up, it would be a big risk to sail there and find ourselves stuck. Fiji is very much in the cyclone belt and, without a secure pit for the yacht, the risk of damage was much greater than in Tahiti. There was also the question of limited flights out of Fiji; at least French Polynesia had a direct link to Europe. Our decision was quite easy: fly home. We were lucky. We at least had a choice. Our American friends, on the other hand, found themselves in the unenviable position of expiring visas and being told they had to move on. Several are on their way to Fiji now, still hoping that New Zealand or Australia will open up to them later this year. We wish them well.

The current situation in the world has meant that we have possibly seen French Polynesia at its best. There were very few cases of Covid, we were in lockdown for less than two months and normal life returned very quickly. We have seen the sights without the crowds and had the seas to ourselves. We were so lucky to be where we were.

So, thank you / mauruuru French Polynesia. It’s been fun. Goodbye / nana / au revoir for now. We hope to visit more of your beautiful islands next year.

Sailing in company

When we arrived in Tahiti back in March and it became evident that we would be stuck there for many weeks, we were dismayed, to say the least. What about all the plans to explore the Pacific Islands – the jewel in the crown of a circumnavigation? Maybe that would just be delayed by a few weeks …. Maybe not! Time dragged on, and even though French Polynesia began to open up, we were still allowed no further west.

Being part of the World Arc we had already been sailing in company, but, as is typical of human nature, we all tended to socialise within our own little groups. Lockdown changed all that. Being stuck in a marina brought us all closer together. We gradually started having nightly sundowners on the pontoon, arranging card afternoons, quiz nights via the VHF radio, reef snorkelling trips and hosting dinners or drinks on each other’s boats. We shared information on weather, sailing plans, news from home and on border closures to the west. We helped each other with boat issues, provided spare parts and advice and made several refuelling trips (to help, of course – nothing to do with the fact that it was a great excuse to get out of the marina). We had built up such a good camaraderie that when the World Arc was suspended, we had a competition to rename ourselves and become known as the SOLA fleet (Sailors Of the Lost Arc).

By mid-May, we were permitted to sail anywhere in French Polynesia. It didn’t need to be said twice … we were off. So much to explore. And this is where sailing in company really came into its own. Although we split up into smaller groups, we still all stayed in contact and supported each other. There is something rather comforting about knowing that friends are with you on a passage, even if you can’t actually see them, and heart-warming to know that others are waiting for you to arrive safely the other end.

The social side of sailing in company has been amazing. Dare I say, better than back home in London! We rarely have a day without meeting up, whether ashore or on one of the yachts. One night I won’t forget was on Domini, a 47 foot catamaran, large enough, would you believe, to have a full-sized keyboard on board! What fun! With Julian (our own lyricist) on vocals and keyboard, making up songs about Fakarava (one of the Tuamotu atolls) accompanied by Richard on harmonica, and the rest of us as backing vocals. We hadn’t laughed so much in ages. I’m not sure what the other boats in the anchorage made of it though – I don’t think we’d have made it into the charts!

We’ve met some wonderful people – not all in the SOLA fleet – and the best thing is that we all treat each other as equals, no matter what our backgrounds. We have neuroscientists and company owners in the fleet but they are just as happy to mingle with mere insurance brokers (and non-boat owners, at that!) as anyone else. People are generally pretty humble about what they have done in life. My favourite example of this is our new Aussie friend – Pete – sailing single-handed (literally – a mining accident has left him with a badly damaged arm) from Tahiti to Sydney, having only learnt to sail about a year ago! When he left Tahiti he was given such a good send-off from people who had only met him two months previously – everyone out on the pontoon, waving and sounding their horns. It was pretty emotional. But back to being humble … Pete happened to mention in passing that he’d done some BASE jumping. After he left, we “stalked” him on-line. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that he is known as the “Godfather of Australian BASE jumping”!! We had no idea. But that’s my point. No one holds themself up as being better than you because of what they’ve been or done in life.

Sailing in company also brings out the best in people. Helping each other out is par for the course. When Kari had problems getting their anchor up, Jeremy, Chris and Julian jumped in dingies to add a bit of muscle to lift it manually. When our water maker finally broke down for good, we rafted alongside Domini (the “Mother Hen”), who filled us up from their tanks. Nobody thinks twice about lending a hand.

I am writing this sitting on the bow of Next Step at anchor in Kauehi (another atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago). Amari have just left to head up North to another atoll and the rest of us will follow over the next day or so. I feel a little sad that we will not be sailing in company for this next bit (we’ve sailed in convoy for the last week or so) but I’m sure we’ll get back together again soon.

We have made some good friends here, from all four corners of the globe, and hope that camaraderie will last for many years, even when we are no longer “sailing in company”.

And on to something different …

After eight weeks of mooring with the beautiful mountainous backdrops of Tahiti and Mo’orea, it was time to experience something different : the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago.

We were originally supposed to have stopped here back in March, but Covid19 saw us receiving instructions to do otherwise : go straight to Tahiti, do not pass Go, do not stop on the way.

So, we waited for a favourable change in the wind direction, raised the anchor and headed the 280 miles back east to Fakarava – one of the larger atolls in the chain.

The landscape here couldn’t be more different – each atoll is just a ring of coral and sand motus (islets) around a lagoon. There is nothing taller than a coconut palm, and there are lots of them. The Tuamotu Archipelago consists of 75 atolls, and is the largest group of coral atolls in the world, formed when volcanic islands subside leaving just the coral reef behind.

These atolls were once known as the Dangerous Isles and were to be avoided. It is easy to see why. The entrances into the atolls are small passes where the tides race in and out twice a day – time it wrong and you will know about it! Once inside the lagoon, you still need to be on your guard – there are bommies (coral reef heads) everywhere. Even when you’ve managed to pick your way safely through to the anchorage, they are still there on the seabed waiting to snag your anchor chain (it’s unavoidable). And if that isn’t enough, they have their unpredictable strong wind – the Mara’amu, which seems to come in every week or so and last for up to 5 days. We arrived at Fakarava two days after the wind had blown through to find two yachts wrecked on the reef and several of our friends with small damage to their boats and rather traumatised by their experience.

Had we made the right decision to come? Absolutely! It is a little bit of Paradise. You couldn’t get much more remote and off the grid and the locals are very welcoming.

Our absolute favourite atoll was Toau, with its false pass and inner reef providing a safe mooring to shelter from that strong SE wind. The blues of the water were just amazing – azure, aquamarine, turquoise all contrasting with the deep inky blue of the ocean lying a few feet away on the other side of the reef. The blues are so bright that they are even reflected on the white undersides of the birds. Beautiful!

Our week in Toau was made particularly special because of our interaction with the locals – Gaston and Valentine. They are two of only about eight people who live on the atoll, and have a coconut plantation. How anything grows here is a mystery to us – the land is just hard coral. No soil. But the coconut trees seem to thrive.

After a day of being here we and Kari were asked if we would like to give them a hand clearing their coconut plantation. Why not? We weren’t really sure what that meant but no harm in building up good relations with the locals. The area to be cleared was huge – certainly far too big for the two of them alone and it was obvious that this job had not been done for a couple of years. What had we let ourselves in for? Certainly hard, sweaty work. But we cheerily got going and after about two and a half hours seven of us had tidied up about a quarter of it – piling dead fronds and dried-out coconuts into small piles to be burnt. It was back-breaking work but we all enjoyed it.

There was, however, a little incident that day. We had been allowed to start a couple of fires. The boys were excited. This was proper man’s work! Unfortunately, it was little too windy and one of the coconut trees caught fire, starting a chain reaction with another pile catching alight. That had us all running like mad to ensure there was a fire-break before the whole lot went up. Needless-to-say, fires were banned after that! Gaston and Valentine obviously weren’t too upset – they invited us to dinner and killed a pig for the barbecue. I don’t believe any of us had ever eaten fresher meat. This also ensured that they got the rest of the plantation cleared … we went back for three more mornings until the place looked pristine. I imagine, though, that if we came back in three year’s time we’d be starting the process all over again.

But the best part about these atolls is below water. The snorkelling and diving are amazing, particularly if sharks are your thing. They are not mine! I am scared of them. Although I agree that they are very graceful, they also seem to have an evil aura to them. Our dive leader did say that they don’t like us because we have “too much iron in our blood”. Great news … but … wouldn’t they need a nibble first to know that! That said, we were extremely privileged to dive in the South Pass on Fakarava – said to be one of the ten best dive sites in the world – and see the Wall of Sharks … hundreds of them eyeing up the fish, lining up their evening meal. No way was I going to dive at night when the feeding frenzy begins, but during the day I was fine with Jeremy by my side. He would protect me … or maybe he would just film any attack on his GoPro for his next video! Fortunately I didn’t have to find out.

It’s time to move on again now. Next stop: the Society Islands, where we hope to experience Bastille Day celebrations Polynesian-style. Catch you there.

Ia Orana (hello) from Mo’orea

We have now been at anchor in Opunohu Bay in Mo’orea for a week and it has to be one of the most beautiful anchorages we have visited. Lying at the foot of Mount Rotui (the sacred Mountain of the Ancient Polynesians), the wide bay has a stunning backdrop of the jagged remains of the caldera of an ancient volcano, lush vegetation from sea to mountain top, a long white sandy beach lined with coconut trees, an inner reef full of life and a vast expanse of sea in the other direction.

Mo’orea is Tahiti’s little sister-island, located twelve miles to the north-west. Its name means “yellow lizard” and it came about following a vision of one of the Great Priests at an ancient marae (a temple made of coral or stone, where sacrifices sometimes took place). Being an ancient volcano, the inner land is virtually inaccessible other than by foot, but some of the lower slopes are cultivated, many for the production of very sweet, small pineapples.

We have used our new-found freedom to get some much-needed exercise in a vain attempt to shift the alcohol-induced weight gain of lockdown. The mountain walks have been a bit of a struggle in the heat but well worth the effort. We have been rewarded with wonderful views over the mountains and the two bays (Cook and Opunohu, where Captain Cook anchored in 1777). Our forest-trail walk along slippery mud tracks and criss-crossing a river required us to find walking sticks to stop us ending up on our backsides, but, again, it was worth it to see the gigantic Putoa waterfall. Unfortunately it is one of those which would be absolutely magnificent in full flow but there would be no way of getting up to see it with that much water around. Still, it was pretty impressive.

By far our favourite form of exercise has been the swimming. Or to be more precise, the snorkelling. One of the great advantages of being at anchor is the ability to jump in the water whenever you like. And we like … a lot! The reef is teeming with beautiful, multi-coloured fish. I must admit that I thought Gill, the leader of the Tank Gang in “Finding Nemo”, must have been made-up, but no, he does exist. He’s a Moorish Idol and Pixar have got him down to a T. I also love the black clown fish. They try to be so bold and brave, staring you out, but as soon as you wiggle your fingers at them, they turn chicken and dart away for the safety of the coral. I literally laugh into my snorkel. But my favourites are the Lemonpeel Angelfish – also scaredy-cats, but coupled with the blue rings around their eyes, they have a constant worried look on their faces. The snorkelling really is magical and uplifting.

Our unique and most memorable experience here has to be socialising with the stingrays. Together with friends from three other yachts, we undertook the 20 minute dingy ride through the reef to the “feeding station”. Once in the water, it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by these elegant, graceful creatures, all hungry for the tinned mackerel fillets we had just opened! There was less fear on their side than ours (maybe something to do with that sting in the tail!) and before long they were literally climbing up us, happy for us to stroke their soft, silky bodies. We also discovered that they have teeth … or should I say, I did. My fault entirely for not holding my hand out properly when feeding one, but a couple of bruised fingers is a small price to pay for such an exhilarating, if slightly terrifying, experience. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we were also surrounded by about eleven black-tip reef sharks – youngsters, we believe, as they were only about 4ft long. We outnumbered them and had several large-ish guys in the group so I’m convinced we would have won! This is one day I will never forget.

We will be here for a couple more days, waiting for good wind to get us back east to the Tuamotus (or the “Tomatoes” as a friend has fondly nicknamed them) where we hope to spend a few weeks exploring the atolls. But for now, we will say nana (goodbye) from Mo’orea. See you again soon.

Lockdown in Paradise

It’s hard to believe that we have now been in Tahiti for seven weeks – not quite what we envisaged when we left Galapagos at the beginning of March, all excited about exploring French Polynesia. By now, we should have spent two months enjoying the delights of the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, and were due to leave Bora Bora today to head off towards Tonga.

But, like the rest of the world, our plans have been turned upside down by Covid 19.

We had arrived after 26 days at sea to find ourselves confined to the yacht. Like most places, we were allowed out for an hour a day for shopping or exercise, there was a curfew in place between 8pm and 5am, social distancing, mask wearing and lots of hand sanitising. Oh, and there was also the small matter of a ban on alcohol sales.

Talking to friends and family back home, however, we realised how very lucky we were. Yes, we were confined, but what better place to be? We had sunshine; we could sit in the cockpit with views out to sea one way and to lush green mountains inland the other; we could talk to our friends as they passed by; the supermarkets were fully stocked with delicious foods – baguettes, French cheeses and pâté, fresh fish daily and steaks from New Zealand. What more did we need?

The South Pacific islands have not been hit so badly by coronavirus. In Tahiti they had 60 cases, no deaths, and there is now only one active case. The first and the last cases were brought in from France, so it is understandable that they wish to keep their borders closed. After all, it was western travellers bringing in diseases that wiped out many of the natives only two centuries ago.

Things here are now almost back to normal again now. It is probably no coincidence that the alcohol ban was lifted the day after the local brewery said they were closing down with the loss of 400 jobs! It’s also no surprise that on the same day every single boat crew in the marina traipsed off to the local distributor with their trolleys to restock!

There are now no restrictions on going out; shops, restaurants and even bars are open. Mask wearing is still recommended and lashings of hand sanitizer doled out everywhere. There also appears to be a new job here – an “agent de proximite” to make sure social distancing rules are still adhered to!

Originally we were simply going to stop to refuel and provision in Tahiti. Nothing more. We had been told that it was just like a run- down French port and not worth spending any time there. I beg to differ. Ok, Papeete has its edgy parts but isn’t that the same with most towns around the world? It is also full of beautifully-maintained parks, lively cafes and a colourful, busy market, roulettes (food vans) and friendly people.

Tahiti is made up of two volcanic islands : Tahiti Nui (large Tahiti) and Tahiti Iti (small Tahiti), joined in the middle by an isthmus. It is very mountainous, full of lush vegetation, and surrounded by a beautiful coral reef full of wonderful, colourful fish, turtles, rays and sharks. We have had the privilege of both snorkelling and diving in these clear waters. There is also a lot of history with early explorers – Cook, Bligh and Bougainville et al.

We have visited tikis, seen black lava beaches and blowholes with enough force to blow your hat off, kayaked to a deserted motu (tiny island), learnt how to make their local dish – Poisson Cru (ceviche with coconut milk), and eaten lunch made by the locals with food from their land.

But our most unique experience has to be our trip into the hills to tour the lava tunnels with a local guide. We spent 4-5 hours in wetsuits and helmets, scrabbling up a river bed through crystal clear, freezing mountain water, at the bottom of a steep gorge clothed in lush ferns and other vegetation, kept warm by the sun peeking over the ridge. It was slow progress, hands were needed to stop you falling on the slippery boulders, we cooled down in icy pools below magnificent waterfalls, scrambled up rock sides using knotted ropes and just the occasional safety line, and used our head torches to explore the huge lava tunnels, with just the occasional place where we had to crawl through on hands and knees. By the time we got back to the car, we were worn out and a little scratched and bruised, but we had huge smiles on our faces. What a great experience!

One of the great benefits of being stuck here is that we have all formed a tight-knit community and strong friendships. Now that we are able to set sail again to explore Tahiti and her sister-island, Moorea, I feel a little sad that we will be splitting up and going our separate ways. We are still unable to travel further; nowhere else will let us in yet, so no doubt we will all be back here again in a week or so, but I fear the lockdown community spirit will never be quite the same again. It’s funny how things pan out.

The big blue

Take a look at a globe. Look at the Pacific side. It is just blue. One vast expanse of ocean covering over 30 percent of the world’s surface. The distance from Panama to the east coast of Australia is over 9,100 miles (as the crow flies). This is what lay ahead of us for several months : long passages, beautiful islands and deserted atolls, different cultures and exciting adventures … That was the plan anyway, but like everyone else out there, our daily life is rather different now to what we had expected.

We left Galápagos on the 4th March with the rest of the ARC fleet and very little wind. We knew the Pacific crossing to the Marquesas had the potential to be slow, but we had a huge distance to go so use of the engine had to be limited. The forecast on PredictWind suggested there’d be more wind if we headed further south, so that’s what we did. It was the right thing to do. After only 30 hours of motoring, we put up the sails and enjoyed over two weeks of peaceful sailing.

We were steaming along, looking forward to arriving in the Marquesas well ahead of our estimated arrival date.

The seas were kind, the weather was sunny and we settled in well to our new watch system as we were now down to only three on board. It was a bit more tiring but we were in good spirits and the days flew by.

As with other ocean crossings, we saw very little other than blue : the sea and sky. There were the occasional whale or dolphin and the usual flying fish, and one or two boats appeared on the horizon or on AIS, but otherwise we were alone.

We were blissfully unaware of what was going on in the rest of the world. The small snippets of information we did receive didn’t really give us any idea of the gravity of the situation. Not until we were a couple of days away from the Marquesas, that is.

We were feeling upbeat. After 17 days at sea, fresh food had just run out, bedding was getting a bit past its “change by” date and were we ready for landfall. Then came the bombshell. We were not permitted to stop in the Marquesas, nor, indeed, the Tuamotus. We were to divert and sail direct to Tahiti – another 950 miles and 9 days away. Obviously something very serious was going on. Fortunately we had sufficient tinned food, our water maker was functioning and we still had two day’s worth of fuel. Other yachts, particularly those with larger crews, were not so lucky.

From the time we diverted, the weather also changed. For four nights we were surrounded by storms – mainly sheet lightning, which is not necessarily so bad, although we did see one bolt of fork lightning hit the sea causing it to “boil”. That was pretty scary, particularly as Chris was on the foredeck at the time, trying to sort a problem with the sails and holding onto the metal shrouds! We half expected to see a cartoon-type skeleton appear with every burst of lightning! The above frame is from a video taken in the early hours of the morning with the sky lit up by the lightning. The rain became a bit draining on moral as well (although on the plus side, it did clean all the salt off the yacht … every cloud has a silver lining), but the lack of wind and flogging of the sails was the most tedious part.

We arrived in Papeete marina, Tahiti, after 26 days at sea, very pleased to be on dry land. Like everyone else, we are now in lockdown and confined to the boat. Everything is closed and we are restricted to an hour’s exercise a day and a curfew over night. But we are lucky – we have sun, can sit out in the cockpit, chat to friends as they pass by and we have fresh French food. We have a lot to be thankful for.

So, for the time being, we are staying put – nowhere else will accept us! Our hope is that we may get to Australia later in the year so that we can leave Next Step safe over the cyclone season. But it’s a case of “wait and see” at the moment.

We hope to be back in the UK sometime later this year. Until then, please stay safe and keep well.

The land of volcanos, giant tortoises and amazing sea life

I am probably a little guilty of not knowing enough about the Galápagos before coming here, other than, of course, that it is full of amazing creatures. That much is true. But it also amazing from a geological point of view as well.

The archipelago is made up of around 15 main islands (4 of which are inhabited), 3 smaller islands and 107 islets and rocks, with those in the east being a lot older than those still developing in the west. The islands are moving towards the South American continent at a rate of 3-8cm a year (depending on who you speak to) as the Nazca tectonic plate slowly moves eastward. The earth’s hotspot, though, remains static so the volcanic activity, some of the most active in the world, all occurs to the west creating new land.

Our volcano experiences started on San Cristobal in the east with a dormant crater which is now a beautiful lagoon full of frigate birds and surrounded by the native Scalesia trees. Next, on Santa Cruz (the middle island), we experienced lava tunnels, created when the lava flow forms a crust on the outside as it cools. These were actually a little scary. As we walked the 1km through these huge, dark, damp tunnels there were signs of land slip which looked fairly recent and if you looked up, the roof was full of large fissures. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the far end. It didn’t make us feel any better when we saw several collapsed lava tunnels a few days later! Our final experience was a 16 km hike (yes, Jeremy did walk that far!) to the Sierra Negra caldera on Isabela island – a crater 20 miles across, full of lava rock, which last erupted in July 2018. This is not the end of volcanos for us – Vanuatu is very much alive. But that’s a few months away yet.

Seeing giant tortoises, particularly in their own habitat, has been a real privilege. In the wild, the main threat to them is the rat, which eats the eggs and the young, so the islands have a major breeding programme to ensure the existence of these magnificent creatures. Even in these reserves, the adults are free to roam as they please, and they are quite unperturbed by humans. They don’t do a lot, but then nor would you if you had to carry that shell around with you all the time. I had the dubious pleasure of climbing into one and trying to lift it. I succeeded – just – but, boy, did it weigh a ton!

I have to say that the highlight for me has been the marine life. Just swimming off normal beaches and in lagoons we have experienced the most fantastic animals in close quarters. We have seen pelicans galore, flamingos, Darwin’s finches, frigate birds and cormorants. We have swum with graceful giant turtles (some as large as me!), baby sharks among huge shoals of fish, the largest parrotfish I have ever seen, marine iguanas (what weird creatures they are) and inquisitive penguins. All so close you could touch them. What a thrill! But … and I know some of my fellow sailors will disagree … my favourite has been the sea lions.

When we first arrived in San Cristobal two weeks ago, it was dark. All around, we could hearing this barking sound. We knew it was the sea lions and it sounded like quite a few. The following morning, the light revealed what an underestimation that was! They were everywhere – on the beach, the rocks, the ferry landing platform, the steps, the pathways, the boardwalks, the benches and chairs. Big daddy ones, females and suckling pups. Great big lumps of lard! You literally had to step over them in places – they were not going to move for mere humans – this was their land!

Considering how ungainly they are on land, they seem to manage to get themselves up onto any place they feel is worthy of being a sunbathing spot – including boats. The catamarans had the most problem keeping them off and even fenders did not always work. We couldn’t help laughing when our South African friend on one cat told us, in a tone of complete resignation, “They’ve had a party. They’ve trashed it.” In an effort to remain sea lion-free overnight they had set up a barricade of chairs, held in place with brooms and boat-hooks. The sea lions took this as a challenge. In the morning, one of the chairs had gone to the bottom of the sea, cushions were in the water, poop was all over the deck and the place stank of fish. One hell of a party! Unlike me, they will definitely not miss the sea lions!

My delight in these animals grew even more when we were snorkelling. They are extremely playful and seek interaction, rushing at you head on, and blowing bubbles in your face before veering off at the last minute to avoid a collision. They are better at “chicken” than me! It scared me silly the first time (all Jeremy knew of it was me screaming!) but then I couldn’t get enough of it and just wanted more. Yes, I will definitely miss these creatures.

Galápagos has been wonderful, but once again, it is time to move on. We are now facing our longest passage of the trip – about 25 days – with only three of us on board. It may be hard work but the Marquesas awaits the other end. Another fantastic destination to explore.

Wind, boobies and red tape

Leg 3 had begun. We were over the start line and the Pacific lay ahead of us. Were we really on our way to Galapagos? Were we really sailing there? Unbelievable! I don’t think it had really sunk in.

It was as if the wildlife of Panama knew where we were heading and were vying for our attention. They gave us a great send-off. First we had to laugh when a large log floated by, topped with seven cormorants, obviously enjoying their blue-water rafting. Then came the rays – what an amazing display! Leaping out of the water – front rolls, back flips, belly flops, the lot. Anyone know why they do it? We’re guessing it has something to do with cleaning themselves. Or maybe they are competing to see who can be the most playful animal in the sea. (Sorry to disappoint rays, but the dolphins have it.) Then it was the turn of the whales – gliding majestically past with that slow, sleek movement of theirs. And finally, a pod of Spotted Dolphins came to say hello and see us off. We were thrilled.

The course was easy: head south-ish (ok, 214 degrees) until we hit Isla Malpelo (a small rock island, owned by Colombia, rising straight up from the seabed 1,000+ metres below), then turn right and go straight till you get there. Our problem was the wind … or lack of it. As predicted, by 6.30pm on the second evening, the engine was on. How long could this last? No more wind was predicted and we did not have enough diesel to go all the way. But the gods were smiling on us. Just over 24 hours later, we rounded the island and found great sailing conditions – enough wind to sail at 7-9 knots over flatish seas. Fantastic. We would be there long before our estimated arrival time.

Two hundred and thirty miles from Galapagos we saw our first booby. What comical birds they are; like something a child would colour-in, with unnatural bright-red feet and a pastel-blue beak. It landed on board, spent an hour preening, then flew off on his way. We were now very excited. We swore we could smell Galapagos (or was that just the bird poop on deck?). After that, we had quite a number of hitch-hikers taking an hour or so out of their flight home. It is quite a sight watching them try to land on the guardrails at night; circling round and round in front of the yacht, under lit by our red and green bow lights like some vampire bat in a low-budget horror movie.

By now, Galapagos was close, but first there was the small matter of an Equator crossing and two Equator virgins on board. It was up to Jeremy and I to play the part of King Neptune and his long-suffering wife and conduct the ceremony. First, Chris and Bromley were made up as Neptune’s favourite fish – the red-lipped cheeky fish (I challenge you to find it in any book … or even online!) Their heinous crimes were read out and they were required to kneel before Neptune and beg forgiveness. Then followed presents to Neptune – precious metals (Panamanian coins) and nectar (Madeiran Poncha). A quick dip in the sea and we had two new Shellbacks on board. To mark this momentous occasion, they both received their turtle “tattoo” from Neptune and we celebrated with Angel Delight and Kit-Kat. What fun we had!

And then we were there. We anchored at San Cristobal at 23.55 on 17 February after a journey of just under 900 miles and celebrated with a few beers and G&Ts before turning in. We were then captive on the boat until the formalities had been completed. Around midday on the 18th, 10 officials and a diver arrived to check the boat – and us – over. It was a bit of a squash on board! Anyone who thinks there is too much red tape in the UK needs to visit here. Everything was checked – flares, life jackets, medical kit, toilets, rubbish disposal arrangements … and on and on and on. Forms, forms and more forms. Signatures on all. No time to read anything. We probably signed our lives away! I even had to have a photo taken of the doctor checking my temperature with a tympanic thermometer! But, we passed the test and half an hour later we were given the all clear to go ashore. I suppose they do have a unique, pristine environment to protect and such wonderful wildlife, so we shouldn’t complain.

We now have two weeks to explore one of the most amazing places on earth. Can’t wait!

Panama – a land of contrasts

We had no idea what to expect of Panama but once again we have thoroughly enjoyed exploring what it has to offer. Of course, we had already experienced the beauty of the San Blas islands, and the wonder of the Canal, but we were unprepared for the sight which greeted us on our first morning on the Pacific side: the skyline of Panama City – miles of high-rise towers, reminiscent of some US metropolis.

I’m afraid to admit that I did not venture into the City itself – walking around London in an English summer is hot enough for me, so pounding city streets in these temperatures was ruled out without a second thought.

We did, however, explore the Old Town … three times. We loved it, with its colourful buildings, mix of cultures and welcoming people. There is obviously some money around and a lot of sympathetic restoration work is going on. We discovered funky bars and ate great food. All in all, we had a fun time.

This was also the place to get ourselves ready for the Pacific crossing. Food was of particular importance as this would be the last place where we could really provision properly until we arrive in Tahiti at the end of April. So, a trip to the supermarket and nearly 1,000 US dollars later, Next Step is lying somewhat lower in the water under the weight of tins and dried foods! We shouldn’t starve!

Unfortunately, a crew change was necessary. Work and family were calling. So James was put in a taxi to head back to cold, wet England. Thanks again for your help James. Your Spanish skills will be sorely missed! Another good friend – Bromley – has now joined us for the leg to Galapagos.

One of the highlights for me in Panama was a visit inland to the native Embera Indians. We hadn’t been told what to expect, so we’re quite surprised to be met off the bus by male members of the village, bodies decorated black (juice from some local fruit) and wearing nothing more than colourful loincloths. Their large dugout canoes were ready for us … complete with 40 hp outboards! We donned life vests and climbed in. Ours looked as if it had seen better days (it had obviously collided with a few things) and was very leaky (one loinclothed gentleman was constantly bailing out). Then followed a thirty minute ride up the Chagres River. This was a stunning journey: a huge, wide river surrounded by wooded mountains, teeming with birds and butterflies. As we approached the village, the river narrowed and the riverbank became more jungle-like, complete with Tarzan vines. Fantastic!

On arrival, two young ladies with similarly painted bodies and brightly coloured skirts were standing in the river, cleaning (defrosting!) our fish for lunch. We spent the day learning about their heritage, culture and way of life, listened to their music and joined in their dancing. Lunch was fantastic – fish and banana fritters served in banana-leaf bowls followed by watermelon and the freshest, sweetest, most delicious pineapple I have ever tasted. I would happily go back just for the food. The leaky canoe ride back down the river finished the day nicely. Ok, so it was a bit touristy, but we had fun.

Our last six days here have been in Las Perlas – an archipelago of around 220 islands in the Bay of Panama, most of which are deserted. There are reefs and low lying rocks everywhere, and the inaccurate charts have made navigation rather interesting. It’s a little disconcerting waking up in the morning at low tide (a four metre drop) to find yourself surrounded by rocks which had been non-existent the night before! Much of the time we have been totally alone; we’ve snorkelled on reefs, explored white sandy beaches, been scared by the largest stingrays I have ever seen, and enjoyed watching the pelicans, cormorants and frigates fishing for supper. It’s been wonderfully relaxing.

Tomorrow we set off for the Galapagos – our longest passage since crossing the Atlantic last year. We can’t wait to explore those unique islands. I still can’t believe how lucky we are.

The Canal Transit

For me, the first time it really sunk in what a huge thing it was for a small yacht to transit the Panama Canal was on the approach to Colon at the north entrance. It was like a slow-motion version of the flight path to Heathrow – ship after ship after ship – tankers, cruise liners, cargo ships – heading in or out, all of them wider than we were long. Zooming in on the chart plotter, our destination was just a mass of grey shapes representing the ships at anchor waiting to transit. Even getting into Shelter Bay Marina was going to be interesting. We felt tiny. Sitting on deck by myself in the dark, I felt a shiver of excitement run through me.

But … we had a few jobs to do before the transit. The most important thing was that we needed our bottom cleaned and anti-fouled. There is nothing worse than a dirty bottom! Ours was covered in green slime and, as well as slowing us down by about half a knot (that’s a lot when you only do about 6), under no circumstances would the authorities in Galapagos have let us stay in their waters in that state. You have to be squeaky clean to sail there. One barnacle on the bottom and they send you a long way offshore to clean yourself in shark-infested waters! No joke!

So, we were hauled out … a day late! … “Caribbean time” proving to be a bit stressful! It was quite an experience, but we now have a posh-looking clean, blue bottom. It was white before, but in true Caribbean style, they didn’t have the colour we’d requested (and been promised) – so it was blue or nothing. We were also fumigated at the same time to kill all the mosquitoes and other flying things on board. Two days later and it’s as if it never happened. Oh well, at least we have our requisite fumigation certificate, that’s the main thing!

We were now ready for our transit. The infamous Panama Canal! How exciting! How scary! Our little fibreglass boat was to go through with a huge, steel tanker – “Sven” – many times our size and towering above us. Practically everything about the Canal transit could seriously damage a small yacht if you got it wrong – the ships themselves, unforgiving concrete walls, huge steel lock gates and strong currents. You really do feel tiny, even rafted up to two other yachts.

Our day started at 6.30am when we had to rendezvous with two other ARC boats near the ship graveyard (apparently seized and abandoned drug-running ships) towards the entrance of the Canal. Our Canal advisor – Liz – joined us for the day. She was a bundle of laughs and very knowledgeable. Our space-hopper-sized fenders had been tied on and the extra-thick lines prepared. First task, raft up with the other two boats. No problems there.

Then we were off. Sven went into the first chamber of the Gatun Locks, followed by two tugs, then our little nest brought up the rear. Our lines were secured, the lock gates closed us in, and so began our slow rise up to the level of Gatun Lake. Three chambers to complete, with us controlling the lines to starboard and the yacht Aurora controlling port side. You are rather reliant on the other yachts in the nest to do their jobs properly so that you don’t smash into the sides, as wash and currents are very strong. I’m pleased to say, we all escaped unscathed. About two hours later we emerged into Gatun Lake – part one complete.

Once out of the locks, we untied from the other yachts for the three hour motor to the “down” set of locks. The lake is a huge expanse of freshwater surrounded by wooded shores. It all seems a little incongruous to see so much large, commercial shipping in such beautiful surroundings. And the water looks so inviting … until, that is, you are reminded that it is full of crocodiles – the only thing to transit the canal free of charge! We were lucky to see one sunbathing on the shore as we made our way along.

After three hours motoring through the buoyed channel, the lake began to narrow as we approached, and passed through, the steep-sided Gaillard Cut. It was then time to raft-up again for the downward locks – Pedro Miguel and two chambers of the Miraflores Locks. This time, our little nest went first followed by the ship – still Sven. Once again we felt tiny and a little vulnerable, staring straight up at the ship’s bow towering above us. Once again, though, it all went smoothly. We were lucky. We have since heard that there was some damage to at least three of the other ARC yachts.

Finally, the last set of lock gates opened, and there in front of us was the Pacific. Wow! None of us had sailed in this part of the world before. It was the start of the next stage of our adventure. The part we had all been most excited about.

We separated from the other yachts for the last time and said goodbye to Liz as she transferred to the pilot boat. Finally, at 8.30pm, we tied up in La Playita marina. It had been a long day. We were tired. No exploring for us tonight. Just time for a few beers and some cheese and biscuits before turning in for a good night’s sleep. Panama City will still be there tomorrow.