Friday, March 29, 2013

Week 1: Galapagos to Marquesas

By Nicole
Hi from the high seas! It's day seven of our passage from the Galapagos to French Polynesia. We're 880 miles or so in, with a couple thousand to go. But who's counting?

In a mass exodus that left the anchorage nearly deserted, eight boats (including us) left the Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela within three days of each other. And since the SE trade winds haven't started their annual migration north yet, most of the boats set out on a SSW course to try to find them. At about 7 degrees south, right where the weather files said they'd be, we found them (hiding amongst the clouds, drizzle and squalls). Since we hit that 7 degree mark a few days ago, we've been seeing consistent winds from the SE in the 15-22 knot range -- nice! The winds are giving us some of our best sailing days yet, although conditions are generally overcast (very Seattle-like), chilly and squally. It's a good thing I didn't put our long undies in the deep storage! It's been a boisterous ride, bouncing and riding confused seas, but we're making good time so far. I just won't be baking any chocolate cakes for a bit ...

Each morning, we check into the Pacific Magellan SSB net with five of the boats we left the Galapagos with (plus a slew of other vessels en route from Panama to French Polynesia). It's great hearing everyone's voices and getting position reports from the boats closest to us. I assigned each boat a different color flag icon on our chartplotter, and after the net each morning, I move the icons around like game pieces. It's fun seeing where everyone is in relation to us. Anyway, it gives me something to do. You may remember Bravo and Nana from our time in Chiapas, Mexico (we traveled inland with them). Well, Bravo is about 188 miles ahead of us headed for Hiva Oa too, and Nana left Colombia for Gambier a few weeks ago. I'm continually reminded what a small world it is. Another boat, Murar's Dream, is flying along ahead of us ... we know them from Mexico too!

All is well aboard, although a little sunshine to go along with these trade winds would be a treat. At least we're not getting sunburned, right? We did see the sun the first few days out and had some incredible sunsets. Watching an especially clear sunset the other evening, trying to catch a glimpse of that elusive green flash, the sun appeared to set and then pop back up before setting for good. Really it was just the swell obstructing our view, but Aaron thought maybe it was a glitch in the Matrix. :)

I'll leave you with a haiku I wrote yesterday:

Just like skipping stones
Flying fish launch from the waves
Glide skim glide skim splash!
At 3/28/2013 2:49 PM (utc) our position was 07°42.00'S 099°46.00'W

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Bella Star sets sail for French Polynesia

By Nicole

You can never cross the ocean
Unless you have the courage
To lose sight of the shore.

-Christopher Columbus

We are poised at the edge of the Galapagos Islands, ready to take that giant step into the vast Pacific Ocean. It means losing sight of the shore for an entire month, give or take, as we sail 3,000 miles to the Marquesas, French Polynesia. The moments – exhilarating, terrifying, boring – that lie ahead are unknown, but we have the courage to weigh anchor, sail out of the safe harbor and live the adventures as they come.

We’ll post HF radio updates to the blog when we can, so stay tuned! But remember that communications on the high seas can be fluky, so just because you haven’t heard from us in awhile doesn’t mean that anything bad has happened. You can also track our progress on the “Where are we now?” section of our blog. After following the link, click on the icon to see our last posted position and a short message. We’re traveling (very loosely) with a flotilla of other boats – three are heading back to Australia to complete circumnavigations! – so we won’t be all alone on the big blue sea.

Galapagos to Marquesas mapWe’ve travelled over 7,000 nautical miles so far, with another ~3,000 to go to French Polynesia:
Seattle, WA USA (Departed 4/11) > Canada (8/11) > West Coast US (10/11) > Mexico (3/12) > El Salvador (5/12) > Costa Rica (11/13) > Panama (2/13) > Ecuador (3/13) > French Polynesia (Arrival 4/13?)

As Tom Petty said, “Into the great wide open ...” Although I don’t think this is exactly what he had in mind. :)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Isla Isabela

By Aaron

Another beautiful stop!  The Galapagos did not disappoint.  We’ve had a lovely couple weeks here, although a good chunk of it was spent on boat projects so we didn’t get to see as much of the island as we would have liked.  Next time!

Around every corner there’s a pretty beach

The anchorage was beautiful and the water was sublime.  At 93.7 degrees it’s not so good at cooling you down though!  The penguins probably don’t care for it.

Sea turtle nests are a common site in the dunes, and here some of their eggs lie just under the sand.  They were delicious!

Lava tubes are all over the island

This is the only iguana crossing sign we saw.  Which is surprising since they are crossing EVERYWHERE.



The roads and trails of Isabela

We took a hike out to a former penal colony where they made the prisoners build a wall out of lava stones.  They call it the wall of tears.  I may have shed a few myself just because it was about an 8k hike to get there.

Iguanas frequently block your path when you’re hiking around here.  This was our first double block.  I’ve got a great video of Nicole trying to get past without being attacked.  I wanted to upload it, but unfortunately there isn’t exactly a fiber network for internet running out to the islands, so even publishing these pictures is asking a lot of the local service provider.

Pictures of an iguana on the beach.  They eat stuff off the rocks and blow salt snot out their noses.  See?  Cruising is learning!

What?  You want more iguana pics?  Well this will be it for a long time.  This guy was our favorite because he had the best mohawk. 


The water here is simply beautiful

The dinghy dock and sea lions napping.  They do that a lot.

Walking into town we frequently passed this little chivo.  We always stopped to pet it and rub his armpits.  He’s so cute and soft, we decided we wanted a goat.  A regular goat wouldn’t be a good boat pet for us because they get too big, but we figured a pygmy goat would be perfect.  Or maybe one of those fainting kind - that would be a fun thing to show people.  I did some research on potty training goats.  Turns out they don’t make good indoor pets.  But the information I found only applied to houses.  Surprisingly, I couldn’t locate any information on goats living aboard a sailing vessel.  I even tried going to but it’s not even a real website.

We’ve been meeting lots of new people that are heading across the south pacific.  The Swedes know how to party!

It’s not all fun and games though.  We carry three 10lb tanks of propane.  The one in use ran out here on Isabela.  No problem, we’ll just switch over to one of our full ones that we had filled up in Panama City.  Nope.  They were both empty.  Not sure why, the valves weren’t closed all the way, and I guess the safety valve isn’t good enough to keep the tanks full.  I’ll definitely make sure they’re closed next time!  The other boats in the anchorage were having success gravity filling their tanks from the local tanks.  Unfortunately this didn’t work for us since we didn’t have the right adapter to go to our fill valve.  I tried to fill through the service valve but there is a check valve that only allows vapor to flow so we were out of luck.  Damn US safety laws!  So now we have this ugly green tank strapped down to the mooring bits on the foredeck feeding our propane system until we can fill our tanks in French Polynesia.  Hopefully.


While I worked on some blue projects Nicole took a trip up to a farm to shop for some produce.  Food prices here are crazy expensive.  You can save a lot of money by buying direct from the farmer.  So into the back of a truck she goes, over the lava fields and through the forests…



The farmer’s name is Silvio and he runs a pretty sweet operation.  The girls walked around with him and picked out all their produce straight from the ground, bushes, and trees.
You just can’t get produce fresher than this.  We got a large bag full of goodies for only $13.  The pineapple is especially delicious!

Everybody in the anchorage is getting ready to make the long jump across the Pacific.  It will certainly be less stressful if you know you’re not going to get lost.

And of course Isla Isabela has been conquered!  That’s 110 for anybody counting.

Galapagos agent review

When we first did research on sailing our boat to the Galapagos, we found the lack of solid information frustrating. Rules change frequently here, and it seemed that every report we read was a little different from the last. How is a planner like me supposed to plan without good intel?!

If you’re considering sailing to the Galapagos from Costa Rica, Panama or Ecuador and need information on securing an agent and obtaining a cruising permit (autografo), we hope our experience will give you one more data point for your collection. Feel free to email us with any questions we don’t answer here.

First off let me say a few things … Yes, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Yes, the rules and regulations are in a constant state of flux. Yes, it’s hard to find accurate information. Yes, your results will probably vary from ours. But bureaucracy aside, the Galapagos Islands are unique, wild and beautiful. Being able to spend a month cruising the islands was an unforgettable experience for us, and we feel lucky to have gotten the chance. Even though we had a hiccup with our agent at the end, we absolutely loved our time in the Galapagos, and it was well worth the effort and expense.

Our Experience

After doing a healthy amount of research on Galapagos agents and the autografo debate (should we get one or shouldn’t we?), we opted to get both an agent and an autografo. We figured if we’d come all that way, we might as well stay for awhile and enjoy ourselves. Despite the negative review that surfaced on a number of websites, we chose Johnny Romero of Naugala Yacht Services as our agent for two reasons: He was less expensive, and he (initially) responded to my emails.

We contacted Johnny Romero about four months before we planned to visit the Galapagos. He was prompt, if not overly thorough, in responding to my emails. He was not particularly proactive in providing information (what we needed to do, what we could expect, which ports we could visit, etc.), and I had to pester him a few times to answer all my questions. For the most part, though, I was satisfied with our interaction.

Check-in procedure:
We chose Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay) on Isla San Cristobal as our port of entry and were super happy with that decision. Anchoring is easy in the large bay, the town is charming and laidback and the natural beauty of the island is stunning.

We emailed our agent upon leaving Panama and again a day or two prior to our arrival in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Before we even had the hook down, Johnny’s representative on San Cristobal (his sister, Karmela), approached us in a water taxi. She showed us where to anchor and told us she’d be back with the officials in two hours (which she was, with the port captain and customs agents in tow). Everything about the check-in procedure here was prompt, friendly and efficient, including the run up to the immigration office to get our visas. Karmela was also helpful at answering our questions and showing us around town. She’s a gem. (She doesn’t speak English, though, if that’s a concern for you.)

As of March 2013, we paid about $700 for a crew of two on our 33’ boat. That includes the autografo, park permits and fees for the agent, port captain, customs and immigration.

The autografo didn’t list out which ports we could visit (which I found interesting), but I’d asked Johnny previously and had his answer in an email. We were granted permission to visit:

- Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay), Isla San Cristobal
- Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Isla Floreana
- Puerto Ayora (Academy Bay), Isla Santa Cruz
- Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela

In talking with boats who used other agents, only Johnny Romero’s clients were able to visit Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Isla Floreana this season (2013). I don’t know why, but it’s a shame – Isla Floreana is a special place.

In the end, we skipped the bustling port of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz due to time constraints (and because a rally of 28 boats descended on the place – too busy for our taste!). If you’ve cruised in Mexico or Central America, you’re already familiar with the national zarpe (clearance papers required to leave one port within the country and visit another); Ecuador is no different. We filed a float plan with Johnny and got a national zarpe from the port captain (for $15).

What went wrong:
Things with Johnny went south after we arrived in Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela. Our autografo was for 30 days (based on the day we thought we’d arrived, not the day we actually arrived), but we discovered that boats were getting up to 90 days for the same price (even boats who also used Johnny)! All this time we’d been unnecessarily stressing about our timeline, trying to cram everything in and worrying what might happen if we needed to wait for weather to head to the Marquesas. Argh.

I emailed Johnny to ask why we were only given 30 days, and he said that he processed autografos based on each client’s request. He also told me it was “strange” that I’d told other boats how many days we got (??). I didn’t remember telling him we wanted 30 days, so I went back through our email exchanges to find out. Turns out, I didn’t.

     Me: “How many days are we allowed to stay in the Galapagos?”
     Johnny: “1 month with an autografo.”

I, politely but firmly, mentioned this to him in an email and asked if he could file an extension for us (weather conditions were such that we weren’t going to be able to leave for the Marquesas on the day our autografo expired). That’s when he completely stopped responding to my emails. I never actually heard from him again.

What we’d do differently next time

Even though we had a bit of a falling out with Johnny at the end, if we had to do it again, we’d still go with him. Hindsight being 20/20, though, I would know to ask for 60 or 90 days on our autografo. Other than that (which is kind of a big deal), everything went smoothly.

We also had a hard time filling our propane tanks. We have the newer, American-style tank with two separate valves – one for filling and one with a check-valve for connecting to the boat’s propane system (one in, one out). People were able gravity-fill the older-style tanks here, but we’d show up with the correct adapters to gravity-fill our tanks.

What we did right

  • Asking for an itemized list of fees
  • Getting the names of sanctioned ports in writing
  • Making Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal) our first port of call
  • Provisioning heavily in Panama before coming to the Galapagos, since stores have limited selection and extremely high prices here. Finding produce is no problem – the supply ships visit regularly and there are lots of great, local farms.
  • Grabbing cash at the bank on San Cristobal. It is a cash-only economy here, so be prepared with lots of US dollars for tours, laundry, groceries, fuel and restaurants. Islas Floreana and Isabela do not have banks or ATMs.

The bottom line? We loved our stay in the Galapagos. Sure it was more complicated to visit here than say Costa Rica, but any headaches we felt were minor. Aside from wishing would could’ve stayed a bit longer, we don’t have any regrets.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Isla Floreana, Galapagos

By Nicole

Penguins? In the Galapagos? Yes! And they’re just as cute as you’d imagine them to be. We were super lucky to have them visit us while we were anchored off gorgeous Isla Floreana. They zoomed around the boat and then quickly swam off like little black-and-white torpedoes (before we could snap any pictures, of course). They may waddle around on land, but man, are they fast in the water! And adorable too. But it wasn’t just the penguins that stopped by. Sea turtles, rays, sea lions and blue-footed boobies all came over to welcome us to Puerto Velasco Ibarra.

While bureaucracy prevents many cruising boats from visiting Isla Floreana (it depends on your agent), we were among the few who got a chance to experience it this season. And I’m so very glad we did. Floreana is wild and remote, and compared to the other islands we’re allowed to visit, it feels less touched by people (and tourists). But being the tourists that we are, we met the crew of Ninita ashore for some exploring.

DSC_5216The main drag on Isla Floreana

After talking with a few of the friendly locals (and even getting a ride on the back of some guy’s motorcycle around the dusty streets of town), I found someone to drive us up into the highlands. We loaded into the back of his pickup truck and sped off into the hills.

DSC_5221 Hang on, guys!

DSC_5227 View from the back of the pickup truck as we ascend from the ocean to the mountains

At the end of the road, we hopped out of the truck and crunched along a trail of reddish brown lava rocks to a tortoise reserve. The Galapagos Islands are volcanic in origin, and evidence of its active past is visible everywhere you look. From the lava rocks that make up the roads and trails to the tree-covered volcanoes and calderas to the black lava fields found near ocean. It has an almost prehistoric feeling about it, which was especially evident when we came across the giant tortoises. They’re one of the most ancient reptiles on the planet, but these guys don’t do much, it seems, except hang out, sleep in the dirt and chow down on vegetation. With such a chill lifestyle, it’s no wonder they can weigh up to 550 pounds and live for more than 100 years.

DSC_5243Two tortoises wait for the food donkey to arrive with lunch.

DSC_5286It’s the food donkey!

And the food donkey from behind … They really had this guy loaded down (those tortoises get hungry!).

Leaving the tortoises behind, we continued along the trail to a set of caves where the original settlers to Isla Floreana lived. A German couple and their small child arrived on the island in the 1930s looking for a simpler lifestyle and, after some modifications, called the caves home for 6 months. Members of the Wittmer family still live on the island today.

DSC_5272The cave is thiiiis big! With more headroom than Bella Star.

Ola taking a break near the caves.

Cave life provided lots of downtime for rock carving, it would seem. The fern hair is a nice touch.

Lush hillsides and Cerro Pajas in the distance

Nina and Ola walk the trail past lovely hanging flowers


DSC_5289The way our driver barreled down the dirt road and practically slid around the corners would make a Duke Boy proud. It just made us hold on for dear life.

Back in town, we stopped into Hotel Wittmer (yep, owned by descendent Erika Wittmer who says “ja” instead of yes or si) for some cold drinks. Erika was kind enough to let us eat our sack lunches in the shade on her balcony. Ola even managed a nap in one of the brightly colored hammocks.

DSC_5310Lunch break at Hotel Wittmer, looking down on the Isla Floreana anchorage (Bella Star is on the left, Ninita is on the right.) We opted to put out a stern anchor because of the swell rolling in.

DSC_5213Hotel Wittmer keeps a book of the boats that visit the island. Flipping through the pages, we were surprised to see our friends Paul and Suzette who lived on our dock in Seattle! Small world!! Of course we filled out a page – we were the first new entry since 2009.

With our bellies full, Aaron and I set off to hike to a nearby beach. Can I just say that the trail to La Loberia is one of the most strikingly gorgeous I’ve ever seen? The contrast between the lush green bushes, the bright white shell beach, the black lava rocks, the turquoise water and the red succulents creeping along the path was stunning. I lost track of how many times we said “wow” and “oh my gosh.”




DSC_5320Iguana tail




DSC_5351Aaron, always running point, checks out the view


GOPR1787 At the end of the trail, a sea lion hangout. The little ones floated through the pass and checked us out while mama kept a close eye. She wasn’t too thrilled with us swimming, so we made sure to keep our distance (sharp teeth!).

GOPR1755Isla Floreana is CONQUERED!

We only spent two days experiencing the tranquility and untamed beauty of Isla Floreana, and I wish we’d stayed a bit longer. But we were excited to get underway for Isla Isabela, an island that everyone says is even more beautiful. Seriously? I can’t see how that could even be possible. But I’m willing to find out. I hope it has more penguins!