Panama to Galapagos: lousy weather, equator, whales collision risk, and a rescue mission that ended up in shark on board

Photo of the Earth from Google Maps. Panama - Galapagos route marked in yellow (mine was more like a zigzag...)
When I left Panama, I was warned by many sailors that the passage is rough this time of the year. The ITCZ is usually no joke, leaving you with dead calm for several weeks (you better have enough fuel) or piling up very strong thunderstorms with lots of squalls and lightning. Many sailors had come back to Panama this year, unable to complete the trip. People were trying to sail off, but losing rudders, rigs, ripping sails, the electronics went broken, you name it.

The time was running out, I had spent too much time in Panama, it was already August and I was eager to get going. There was finally an OK weather window, and off I went.

For two first days, it had been lovely. Then, as expected, I was exposed to the SW wind that is predominant there. The wind was on the nose, which was not so good, but nevertheless it was not so strong, maybe up to 20 to 25 knots at most, and it was constant. What was worse though, was the current. It was pushing the boat back at a rate of 2 to 3 knots. The drift-off created made it impossible to sail close-hauled, since it was often a choice of going either SE or NW – and both meant sailing exactly 90 degrees away from the target! I tried to motor, and it did work but it was torture to steer against both wind, current and waves, especially at night. The alternator was broken (I later discovered a cable simply loosened) and the solar panels did not create enough energy as it was 100 % cloudy for days and days, so I could not runt the autopilot and had to handsteer day and night, which meant 4-6 hours non-stop at the rudder, 4-6 hours off for sleep,and then steering again. The waves were up to 4 meters at times, also directed right against the boat, but at least they came from the same direction the whole time. The weather was cold, sort of like Sweden in spring or autumn. The Humboldt current chills down the water and the air with the Antarctic cold it brings along. Often it rained, and together with the wind that created an enormous chill. I was of course already acclimatized with the tropical weather, and found it very uncomfortable. I had all my warm clothes on and was still constantly freezing.

Finally, I reached the equatorial currents and the winds changed to S! I had passed the ITCZ and got some sunshine, and could reload the batteries. The last days were beautiful sailing, of though quite chilly too. Incredible - this is supposed to be Equator, you’d expect it to be hot!

Upon crossing the Equator itself, as a skipper I had to do my duties. So a King Neptune with a big white beard, a trident and a crown appeared on the boat (trying the hardest not to start saying Ho, Ho, Ho). The King Neptune opened a bottle of bubbly, and a mandatory traditional equator dip took place! The crew, that had been sleeping at the time, was slightly shocked but happy.

I got company of many huge birds, and saw a turtle in the water - it waved at me with its flipper. Also, a lot of dolphins were there, and I saw a whale very close to the aft, it seemed to be a bit confused and fluttered around the boat, maybe checking out what kind of creature this was.

Seeing whales is always majestic, but it also makes me a bit nervous. Their vision is not too good, so sometimes they collide with sailing boats – either unintentionally, or by thinking that the boat is a female whale. A boat is unlikely to be unaffected by such a collision. A Ukrainian boat, sailing the same route as us a bit earlier that season, got a whale stuck between the keel and the rudder. They drifted for weeks, unable to steer or start the engine. At last they came to shore somewhere in Ecuador. I of course did not want to share the same fate, but it’s hard to avoid the whales, after all it’s their territory. The only way to lower the risk, what I’ve heard, is to play music down below, so it will be heard through the hull and repel the whales.

As I went west from the coasts of Columbia and Ecuador, I saw less and less ships. Finally they disappeared altogether. But one evening, I was surprised by a small plastic boat bobbing around the waves, 150 nautical miles from nearest land! I went off to a rescue mission, thinking that they must have drifted away from the coast and needing immediate help. But the people in distress waved back and said they were Ok and I should not come too close. It turned out to be fishermen, part of a plastic boat fleet distributed by a larger mothership nearby, happily fishing by hand. They came to my boat an hour later and offered a shark as a present. I got the huge shark body onboard the boat, and gave them a present too - a bottle of rom. Me and the crew ate fried shark, grilled shark, pickled shark, and Caribbean shark stew for three days, and still had to throw away two thirds of the meat. It's really a big fish! The skin is sandpaper-like, and the meat is white and very dense. The best recipe was the Caribbean stew in a pressure cooker, it made it very soft and juicy.

After a tough 11 days at sea, on 20th of August 2011, 13:00 Panama time, I was finally there - the legendary Galapagos Islands. Here is more about the islands, and about how the visit was!

Afterwards, I was ready to cross the Pacific.

Arriving to Galapagos Islands after a cloudy and cold leg. The ship's temporary mascot says hi!