Coincidences or karma? Whatever you believe, things happen for a reason and more often than not are out of your control. Most are good such as the arrival of our new crew member, Rachel, who had, coincidentally, sailed on Miss Tiggy on a delivery from Palma to Southampton when she was still called On Liberty. Or bumping into Malcolm Bamford who was joining us in Panama City and who, having just arrived, took a stroll from his hotel to find a restaurant for dinner. He walked up the street in which we were just disembarking from our taxi. A minute later we would have been in the restaurant and out of sight. The appearance of Dobra, the Emergency Physician, who happened to be in Shelter Bay Marina when James’ foot needed medical attention and who we now believe saved Charlie’s life.
We were pleased and relieved to finally leave Panama City – our last days were marred by a non performing freezer that had not worked since we pulled Miss T out of the water for a bottom scub and several coats of anti-fouling. It was hot and busy and the constant wait for trades people to turn up was frustrating. As great a modern city as Panama City is, the Internet is slow, the roads are choked with traffic, and waiting for service (normally due to a personal mobile phone conversation being completed) made the to call to sea even louder. A few Oysters have been delayed in their departure for the Galapagos due to a variety of mechanical reasons, however our hearts go out to Annie & Tom on yacht Vela who have not been able to set sail for medical reasons. Hopefully they will catch up in either the Galápagos or French Polynesia!
A lovely group of islands belonging to Panama called Las Perlas was our stopping point for a few days and it was here, on our morning of departure, that we found that our Auto Pilot was not working. Turn around and return to Panama or hand steer to the Galápagos Islands? After weighing up all the pros and cons we decided to push forward – not an easy decision as it meant 2 hourly shifts (with 6 hours off) manually steering the boat 900 miles – all day and all night. This may not sound like a big deal however to jump out of bed at 12, 2 or 4 am and concentrate for 2 hours on the compass bearing while looking around into the night for potential risk factors is hard work! There was great relief when our Skipper decided that we could in fact head for the Galápagos Islands and get the problem sorted there as opposed to beating a track back to Panama.
Onwards and upwards! In this case it was more a case of heading in the right direction! As we set sail south we had the wonderful offer of joining 575 Calliope and following them to them to the Galápagos…this meant a leading light that we could fix on and follow as opposed to a compass point – so much easier for us and we are eternally grateful to them! Charles and Nicky have been great company for the 6 day passage and we have shared information, passage planning suggestions, and even swimming and champagne. Several evenings around 5pm we would stop the boat and jump into the Pacific…we even swam between boats, with our bottle of Moët to celebrate our forthcoming crossing at 00.00.00.
We crossed the equator at 0309 on the 31st March with deck lights blazing – Charles and Nicky were magnificently adorned with long flowing golden locks, an all over tan, and crown and trident to complete their homage to King Neptune. In true Aussie style, the Cres of Miss Tiggy was dressed up in red and blue and all things Demon to encourage Neptune to join the fold of Dees (Melbourne Football Club) supporters! We even sang to him – “It’s a Grand Old Flag”…this video footage is never to be released!!
Our first glimpse of San Cristobal the most eastern of the Galápagos Islands was just as we had expected having watched many programmes about it. We sailed into Puerto Baquerizo and as soon as we arrived were visited but officials for immigration, customs, GNP (Galápagos National Parks) – a total of 7! After much paperwork (the red tape is very stringent) and a visual check of the boat we were cleared in. Nobody uses their tenders to go in and out to the shore so water taxis are buzzing around all over the bay picking up and dropping off at all hours of the day and night. We knew about the sea lions and were greeted at the town pier by a cacaphony of barks, which sounded like a group of old men clearing their throats! They lie around like nude women posing for an artist and every now and again will open one eye to check out the scene or growl at a passer by. After a lovely dinner out we headed back to Miss T and fell asleep very quickly after our 6 day passage of hand steering….the next morning we found that we had been visited overnight by a large fish smelling hairy chap who had slept in our cockpit, on our cushions! Needless to say the next morning was spent scrubbing them within a inch of their lives and a barrier has been set up to discourage a repeat performance.
Our knight in shining armour, in the form of Gavin Needham, a marine engineer from Oyster, fixed our auto pilot in great speed – James and Rachel had been so close! A big relief particularly for our next passage, which is one of the longest…about 3 weeks to t he Marquesas in French Polynesia.
A scuba dive was set for Kicker Rock – swim with the hammerheads! An incredible experience…to see a large shark cruising through the depths and not the slightest bit interested in us! James and I also had an up close and personal moment with a large turtle who was non plussed about the visitors in his area and who swam happily near us giving us a great thrill. The birds and animals of the Galápagos are not afraid; a Naturalist explained this phenomena as due to a complete lack of predators!
5 days of cruising around the Islands on our own boat with a Naturalist on board should be a highlight!!
We met Charlie in Palma – blond hair, blue eyes and confident. He worked on another Oyster 575 called “Calliope” for Charles and Nicky Manby and because he shared the same name as the owner he was nick-named Charlie. He joined Miss Tiggy to assist James with skippering the boat – at 26 he had spent the majority of his life in boats of various sizes and shapes and has a great feel for sailing. He has been a real asset to have working alongside us – part of our “band of brothers”.
Charlie throws himself into everything and gives 120%. He has even become a passionate supporter of the Melbourne Demons without ever watching a game. He would scan the Internet every morning, where possible, and update James about injuries, best players and sing “It’s a Grand Old Flag” in full voice. If there was ever need for encouragement about anything he would cry out “Go Dee’s”.
Energetic, cocky, fun, impatient, sensitive, musical – Charlie is a walking dichotomy between full steam ahead and sprawled on the couch watching a movie with great intensity. He loves to kite surf and listen to slow, melodic music. He is first to offer assistance if help is needed and will jump in the tender and take off at full throttle whenever the opportunity presents itself.
No one was more taken aback when we were telephoned to say that Charlie was heading to hospital unable to breathe properly…then an hour later he was moved to Intensive Care. Thanks to Dobra, an Emergency Physician who happened to be sailing on the rally with us, and her insistence that the hospital perform a CT scan, Charlie will be OK. His scan uncovered a large blood clot in the upper part of his right thigh/groin area and another in his right lung with evidence that it had traversed through the right side of his heart. The question, once he has recovered, will be – how did this happen to a healthy and fit young man?
For us it is a sad farewell to our new mate who wanted to traverse the Panama Canal and sail out into the Pacific Ocean with us – destination Australia. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see that face back on our boat some day!
Our 2 day transit through the Panana Canal is now complete and an absolute highlight so far! There was much discussion pre transit as to how it would all work. The plan was to raft up 3 similar sized Oysters – the port and starbord yachts to control the lines and the central one to keep the nest on track. Meetings were had and tactics and additional crew put in place (you must have 4 crew plus the Skipper) and we were ready to go.
Our Transit Advisor, Oswald, came on to Miss Tiggy at 3.30 on Day 1 and once we were rafted up with Oyster 575s “Sophistikate” and “Tianelle” we completed the first 3 locks placing us approximately 25 metres above sea level and into Lake Gatun. At night in the Lake our flotilla of Oysters and an additional catamaran were once again rafted up (it is a very tightly controlled operation). Oswald was collected by a Pilot launch only to return at 7.00am the next morning to assist us in the completion of our transit – a 4 hour passage across the lake to the Guillard Cut and the final 3 locks. As the gates opened for the last time a huge cry went up – we had arrived in the Pacific!! Thanks to our hard working crew/rope handlers (Mike, Robert Van, Popeye) who saw us safely through the 30 miles of locks and lake!
Preparation for entering and cruising in the Galapagos has been intense. Understandably they have very strict rules and regulations to protect the wildlife and pristine waters of their island group so intensive cleaning of Miss Tiggy both inside and out as well as a haul out for a pressure hose off and 2 new coats of anti-fouling has been completed. A diver will complete a final check and a certificate will be issued as proof. Food is another thing and provisioning is difficult and restricted. No seeds or nuts, fruits and vegetables, limited cheese and dairy products, meat that has been vacuum sealed with a use by date from an authorised vendor (we are hoping that a supermarket chain will suffice for this) and so on – and to add to this complication, our freezer has decided to stop freezing! Ah!
James foot is nearly fully recovered – a few days in Panama City to have the freezer fixed, provision, collect Malcolm Bamford (from Melbourne) and begin our long passage across the Pacific via Galapagos, French Polynesia, Tonga, Fiji and NZ…
This picture says a thousand words…..
The Guna are the indigenous people of the San Blas islands and sailing into their stunning coral cays is jaw dropping. We were greeted by a pod of seriously large dolphins and then by the warm and friendly faces of the locals, happy to share their beautiful home with us. They are quick to greet us in their canoe boats to sell fish, lobster or the “molas” that they carefully design and embroider to make a few dollars from us the tourists…we must however, follow their strict rules – no scuba diving, fishing by either rod or spear, no removal of conch shells or photographing their people without authority, but we are willing to comply and grateful for this opportunity to share their space where we can BBQ on the beach and enjoy the serenity of their world.
The Tour Operator in James is alive and well as he organised with a local man, Eldafonso, to take a group of us on two interesting expeditions – one to visit another island and attend a ceremony for two girls who were making their life commitment to live the Guna way which coincided with the only day of the year that the women can drink and smoke. We were herded into the local community hall and encountered a large group of women of all ages, dressed in their national costume swigging out of bottles of rum and smoking baskets full of cigarettes! A bit like Friday night drinks with the girls…Our second adventure was a river cruise into a Panamanian rain forest – that was what we were led to believe! We headed up the river for about 500 metres before disembarking and following the river by foot up to a waterfall. Most of us were wearing flip-flops so it was a painful 3 hour return trip in difficult conditions. To add insult to injury James collected a couple of ticks that were only discovered 2 days later, one of which had buried itself into the back of his thigh and which required surgery with a kitchen knife to dig it out.
Our last days in the beautiful San Blas Islands we marred by cut feet. I was first after a beach walk and was quickly followed the next morning by James who has done a particularly good job of cutting into the pad of one foot right up into his toes – he should have had stitches and due to the warm sea water and tropical climate, it became infected so we literally limped into Shelter Harbour (our last stop before the Panama Canal transit). His foot has been heavily bandaged, a good dose of antibiotics prescribed and a crutch for support has him on the mend. Many thanks to both doctors who helped and Nurse Lindy (again) who has become a regular and much appreciated visitor to Miss T to mop up the crew!
The activity is frenetic around the marina as many sailboats call in here before or after the Canal transit. Last minute fixes, new parts to be ordered and provisioning is essential here to get us through to French Polynesia. Our closest supermarket is about an hour away in Colon which in not a safe place to go alone. There is a marina bus twice a day but if you miss that, which Mike and I did one day, you have to get a cab…I did feel very vulnerable I have to say.
A group of us decided to spend a weekend in Panama City – long showers, fast wifi, shopping, cocktails and fine dining were all on the agenda! We took the train from Colon to Panama along the original line and in a classic old carriage and headed to our hotel in the old part of the city. The regeneration of this area is having a profound effect on the nature of the “old town” and it is very cool and fabulous to visit…the hotels, restaurants, roof top bars and music scene is helping to create a vibe that draw in many visitors both local and international. A local jazz band, led by one of Panama City’s most accomplished jazz divas, entertained us with a medley of songs in English and Spanish – some of the best live music we have ever heard…and there were only 40 people in the bar!!
Time is flying by and it is hard to believe that in a weeks time we will be in the Pacific Ocean! Thursday will be the start of our transit through the Panama Canal – a feeling of excitement and anticipation best describes the current mood of the fleet!
The purpose for visiting Curaçao was to catch up with a delightful Dutch couple, Robert and Ellen, whom we had met in Hobart several years earlier. It was our first night of staying off the boat since 30 September 2016 (over 4 months) and we thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful home cooked meal and a bed that didn’t move all night!! To top it off, a shower that you could stand for as long as you liked! Such wonderful hospitality.
Our passage to Cartagena in Colombia took a couple of days and sailing in this area requires vigilance – we were very conscious of not getting too close to the coast of Venezuela and thus opening up potential risks of piracy. The coast of Colombia is well known for its strong winds and several other OWR yachts had gusts of 40 knots or more and large seas – we were lucky and had a very easy time of it, to the point that we had to motor the last few hours. From the boat, Cartegena looks like the Gold Coast with tall modern hotel buildings and office blocks, but once into the marina we discovered secreted behind its modern facade, one of the most beautiful old walled cities that I have ever visited! Add to that the totally “cool” vibe of the Colombian people and we knew we were in for a treat!!
Overwhelmingly, the Colombians are happy and helpful and welcoming, however sometimes they overlook the finer details! Example…we were requested to move our Marina location on the first morning in – no problem! Soon after Miss T was hard aground in the marina with the Marina Manager watching on and indicating that we should keep trying to get into a berth that was clearly too shallow. Luckily there was a helpful power boat alongside who were happy to assist!
Some years it is hard to remember where you had your birthday, but I will not forget my 59th! We stayed in a small historical boutique hotel, had dinner with some of our Oyster friends who were in town on the night before the big day, and then came the day of pampering that had been prearranged by Sal and Will at the hotel spa…a 2 hour massage, a facial and then 2 hours at the hairdresser to try and tame my over blond, undernourished hair back into a more decent head of hair (if that is ever possible). As an aside, James and I are particularly bad with the Spanish language (no surprises there) and my concern was how I was going to describe colour and style! Amazingly the owner of the salon was a Colombian born hairdresser who had spent 20 years in a salon in Double Bay in Sydney and was very excited to have an Aussie in his shop!
Charlie had told us about a local guy he had met called Henry, who was passionate about his city and a great guide. We organised to meet him near the Old Town to take us on a walking tour that same afternoon for an hour or so. Four hours later we bid him farewell after having been introduced to the history and culture of Cartegena. It was entertaining, interesting, informative and just what I would have imagined a Topdeck Trip Leaders’s walking tour should/would have been like! We were the ultimate tourists and enjoyed every moment, including a strong gin and tonic/ beer on top of the old city walls. The highlight for me was the story of their own Indian Pocohontis (Aracka Wacka) – my kind of girl!! We downed some tapas on our way back to the boat and witnessed a fast and colourful Zumba session taking place in a local square – hundreds of back packers mingled with the locals to put on a great display!
The word “bonaire” literally means “the feeling one would get after doing something satisfying” and the island of Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela has certainly lived up to this! It doesn’t have the jaw dropping beauty of the other Caribbean Islands we have visited, but once your head is below the waterline a different Garden of Eden awaits! Seven dives (including a night dive using torches) in some of the best scuba areas in the world has been awesome. What have I learnt this week? Fish actually lie down and sleep! They find a crevice or hollowed out piece of coral and they close their eyes and remain motionless…not something I have ever thought about before!!
We hired a Wingle – Great Wall which James believes is a Chinese ute to transport us around the many dive sites. Everyone drives a ute! It has been many years since I have had to hoist myself in and out of the back of a ute!! Up until now we had been entering the water from boats so this was a new experience again! The tanks were loaded on to a specially designed timber tray and you set up to dive sitting on the tail gate …then the long road to the water would start. Heaven forbid if you fell – it would have taken at least 2 people to haul me back up!! Once in the water there were some interesting moments trying to fit fins while treading water but then you are fluid and weightless, I imagine like being in space! Getting out was also hard work – I would even use the word feeling shattered after several dives.
Daily activities abound as do the evening social events and when you have more than one Oyster yacht in any one place at a time, then the drinks flow. We decided that it was time for an introduction to a true Aussie BBQ – only music from “a land down under” was played and we introduced them to beetroot in a burger…most came wearing something Australian and our marina neighbours were most unimpressed with our midnight rendition of “Up there Cazaly”! We managed 21 revellers on Miss Tiggy and a major decision was made – BBQ’s will now be on the beach! Ironically as we were explaining the meaning of the words to “Tie me kangaroo down sport” and “Jake the peg”, Rolf Harris was successfully having charges dropped. “True Blue” is becoming an iconic song and by the end of the night we had them all singing it but still grappling with understanding the lyrics! How do you explain to a Swede….”if they sell us out like sponge cakes, do you really care?”
We celebrated the birthday of Hugh (Meteorite) with a magnum of French bubbly kindly donated by Eric (Lisanne) who had won said magnum for being the first Oyster across the line in the ARC…he felt it an appropriate time to share his trophy and we certainly enjoyed it.
It is not all fun and games of course and we are certainly not living in a bubble! On the other side of the coin is the constant need to be vigilant – crime is rife and has touched our group several times. A young couple, part of the OWR, were walking back to our marina past midnight and were held up at gunpoint – just a reminder to us all to take extra care.
Now fully armed with dive gear and a slight obsession with our newly found sport, we are heading for the A (Aruba) and C (Curaçao) of the ABC islands and then on to Colombia.