26 March 2006
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador N 08.56.147 W 079.33.306
So Long Panama
One last reflection of Panama. Recently Panamanian newspapers have carried articles in which the US accused Panama of widespread corruption and facilitating drug traffic with its lax banking laws. Similar articles made headlines with the EU as the accuser. Well, I can't speak to that but I can tell you that low level officialdom in Panama is corrupt. Every immigration officer save one asked for a bribe or tried to charge some superfluous fee.
Customs officers were always looking for overtime pay even when there was no OT or no need for OT. This petty bribery is exacerbated by the fact that you are suppose to check in and check out of every major port. The canal however is operated by a private contractor, ACP, and we found no improprieties there. We did all our own paperwork on the canal transit and subsequent check in and out and saved a couple hundred dollars or so we thought but we also had to endure several visits to the Port Captains' office to fill in forms and pay fees not to mention the taxi fares. So if you're coming to Panama and there is no reason you shouldn't, just be prepared. Each legal transaction is logged by hand into a journal and you must stop at three offices to check out not counting immigrations. $1.50 here, $8.20 there, $60.00 for a three month cruising permit (you must buy in three month blocks), $20.00 for the immigration officer, $20.00 for an immigration stamp. $10.00 for a tourist visa. $30.00 to extend your visa if you stay over 90 days. And you know it might not be that bad if at any of the places there was a computer in sight. Nope, bureaucrats peck away with two fingers and a lot of erasures, files are stacked shelf after shelf without any possibility of recalling any information. There is a most dour lady sitting at the Balboa yacht club that works for immigration and probably doesn't stamp more that four or five passports a day. And she is the only immigration person who did not demand a propina. Of course her desk was next to the dock master of Balboa who was an American.
We departed Balboa and staged our trip to the Galapagos Islands at the Perlas Islands some 30 miles off shore. Casual acquaintances gave the Perlas mixed reviews and current information told us that the local waters were fouled with red tide brought up by the Humboldt current. Having never seen red tide before we were for some reason surprised by how blood red the water appeared to be. Red tides are caused by billions of dinoflagellates (plankton) of various species which when dying off impart a reddish color to the water. The Red Sea is so named because of this phenomena. Such tides are sometimes dangerous, because they poison shellfish and fish and this can be passed to humans who might eat the toxic seafood. The Humboldt current which comes up from Antarctica also brought with it a drop in water temperature to just below 70 degrees. At this writing the temperature was up to 84, still too cold to enjoy but I donned a wet suit and cleaned the bottom of Shiraz while Rene cleaned the top. A full moon was on the rise so we decided not to investigate the islands further and stowed everything for departure.
Okay so what is this ITCZ or Intertropical Convergence Zone?
In the area from about 30° north of the equator to 30° south , the westward-moving trade winds prevail. Centuries ago these steady winds carried the sailing vessels of European traders, hence their name. Where the northern and southern trade winds meet near the equator they cancel each other out, creating the doldrums, a region of little or no wind more formally called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).
So here we are in the doldrums, establishing a new record for the slowest passage to the Galapagos. We are so slow that our fishing lures are growing barnacles, booby birds are building nest on our solar panels and turtles pass us on a regular basis. We have been sailing with five knots of wind or less but with a favorable current and making 3.5 knots SOG (or speed over ground for our less nautical readers). Occasionally all the wind stops and the sea is so calm that it mirrors the moon and the stars and we find it necessary to motor. The nearest diesel is 800 miles away so we are careful about our fuel consumption. What makes our passage seem even worse we left about the same time as three other catamarans and they are well ahead of us. Of course they are larger and have these enormous sails that are made of "space age" material. Hear the envy in my tone?
After four days the winds freshened a bit and we are moving along at 5-7 knots. We fantasize about how to make the boat faster when it is hauled out in New Zealand. Do we remove the shoes on the keels, close some thru hulls, add larger sails, increase the height of the mast? But how many times are you going to take your boat across the ITCZ?
The waters in this area are rich with nutrients and at night before the moon comes up you can see a bioluminescent wake that is significantly larger and brighter then any we have experienced before. It almost appears that we have lights below the water line. This visual effect is created by the hull and running gear breaking up the plankton and as that happens phosphorus is released into the water. The area is commercially fished and we have seen several large trawlers with huge nets on the rear deck ready to be spread across miles of the sea. Although we have caught but one small tuna, we did have a bit of excitement one day when a six foot bill fish hit one of our new lures and it danced on top of the water three or four times before breaking our 30 pound test line. It was a ten dollar lure and a three dollar show.
Daily we check in with the Pan Pacific radio net at 9:00 a.m. on 8143mhz on the SSB radio . We also set up a radio schedule with the three other catamarans to call twice a day at a specific time to exchange location, etc. It is nice to know that there are people that know your location and it is also good to talk to someone along the way.
Cutting the Line
Shiraz and her crew crossed the equator on 20 March at 4:04 p.m. and made a simple sacrifice of champagne to Neptune, the god of the seas in Roman mythology. We also did all the normal cruiser things like take pictures of the GPS at latitude "0", flush the toilets to see if the water does indeed twirl the other way, and sat back to enjoy yet another milestone in our slackadventure. Although the rule on Shiraz is no alcoholic beverages while underway, we did make this one exception and had a glass of champagne to celebrate. Only 75 more miles to the Galapagos and 0 Kt of winds.
There are two ports of entry in the Galapagos. One is Wreck Bay in San Cristobal and the other is in Academy Bay in Santa Cruz. We chose Academy Bay since the agent that we had contacted was located there and the island provided more interesting sites and activities. It also houses the Darwin Research Station. The anchorage is a bit crowded and the swell creates a roll so it is advisable to utilize a stern anchor. While at the Perlas we contacted Johnny Romero, at nautigal@interacti and provided him with all the information he required to procure a cruising permit for Shiraz. We were not however able to supply him copies of our passport and boat documents nor wire money in advance so upon arrival we were denied the cruising permit and were given a thirty day port call permit. A cruising permit would have allowed us to visit all four inhabited villages at will while our permit only allowed Santa Cruz and Isabella. We weren't disappointed but if you are destined for the Galapagos be sure to get the permit first since decisions on your stay seem capricious and rely more on the relationship of the agent with the port captain. Oh yeah, agricultural rules required that all boats be fumigated upon arrival for protection of the local species. A good idea but it was carried out 9 days after our arrival.
Our first day ashore found an abundance of quaint bars and restaurants and numerous gift shops with handicraft items and a plethora of hats, T-shirts, bags, sandals, and other souvenirs.
Although you have read some complaining about the passage in the paragraphs above it was a very pleasant experience and was not difficult.. We enjoyed a nightly show put on by the galaxy and the seas were never over four feet. We averaged 110 miles per day which is slow but we had the opportunity to try every sail combination we could think of and we gained valuable downwind experience.
If you're headed that way:
- The Panama Connection Net is at 1430Zulu each morning on frequency 8107 mhz and covers from Belize to Cartagena.
- The Pan Pacific Net is at 1500 Zulu each morning on frequency 8143 mhz and covers from Nicaragua down to Ecuador and out to the Marquesas.
- The agent that we used to clear into the Galapagos was Johnny Romero, manager at the Galapagos Yacht Services. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and the arrangements for a cruising permit MUST be made four to six weeks before arriving. His telephone/fax number from overseas is ++593-5-2527403. He requires a legible copy of your boat document and passports to be faxed to him or scanned in and attached to the email. Once inside the port he can be reached on channel 14 VHF. He will then come to your boat. Our costs were approximately $165 government fees and Johnny charged us $100 for handling our paperwork. Anything else you book through Johnny will peobably cost extra. If you do a little leg work you can get a better deal on your own, ie dive trips, tours.
- You can use an agent from Wreck Bay who happens to be Johnny uncle and he will charge you $50.00 and you don't have to pay in advanced. Always ask for 90 days when applying for a cruising permit, you can always leave sooner.
- The local hailing channel is 14