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The Galápagos Islands, the hard way


Looking for a little adventure in your life? Cedar residents Andrew and Janet Gunson have found it by exploring the world in their 44’ sailing ketch the Maiatla II.

By Andrew W. Gunson

We departed Chiapas, Mexico in December of 2015 aboard our sailing vessel Maiatla II, bound for Ecuador’s enchanted Galápagos Islands which lay 1000 miles to the south, straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean.   My wife Janet and I began this voyage from Ladysmith Harbour in 2012 and had  been country-hopping through Central America, on our way to the Panama Canal ever since. Before making the final run for the legendary canal, we decided to first head offshore to find the archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin in 1885, who, after seeing all the strange and wonderful creatures living there, developed his theory of evolution.

Our crew was comprised of our friends: Mark Taylor, a veteran sailor; Nic Longo, our enthusiastic sailing and bluewater virgin. To round off the crew was long-time crewmember Marina Sacht editor of  TAKE 5. I anticipated the offshore passage should take between 8 to 10 days, arriving in the Galápagos on or before December 21st in time for Janet and Teri (Mark’s wife) to fly in for a tropical Christmas amongst the tortoises and marine iguanas.

I anticipated calm seas for the first few days then the wind should build from the south, making for a pleasant sailing passage. However, that’s not what happened. Our first three days offshore we had calm seas as we passed along the coasts of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. It was beautiful but too calm, at times we were forced to use the engine when we could not sail. It was a pleasant time spent lounging on deck reading, listening to music and fishing, catching tuna and hooking a pair of ‘tail-walking’ swordfish that ultimately got away.  Sea turtles and dolphins were easy to spot on the smooth water and so were the schools of flying fish that would break the surface in a frenzy, gliding for fifty-meters or more before diving back into the sea. We even spotted a rare giant Leatherback Turtle that was over two meters in length basking on the surface.

Despite the pleasure cruise atmosphere, offshore passages can be dangerous when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest land, but here off the coast of Central America we needed to be especially alert as we were in heavily traveled waters used by runners smuggling cocaine from Columbia to Mexico. Fortunately, we managed to avoid any encounters with these high-seas pirates.

Our troubles began on our fourth day at sea, when during the night the engine died and refused to restart after digesting some bad fuel. We still had 450 miles to go before reaching the Galápagos and it was farther still to turn around and head back to Mexico. We were engineless and solely reliant on our skills as sailors and the wind to keep the boat moving in the right direction, which proved frustrating.

Over the following days we encountered dead-calm seas, which left us drifting for hours aimlessly. Then followed the appearance of equatorial gales with torrential rain – gales which originated from the very direction that we wanted to go. Of course!  We endured four exhausting days and nights sailing hard into the big seas that frequently washed down the decks, driven by combative winds as we attempted to fight our way further south in hopes of reaching our destination of San Cristóbal Island in time for Christmas.

On our ninth morning at sea, an apparition materialized in the form of a small island named Isla Pinta, our first deserted Galápagos Island but we could not stop even if we wanted to, as it was too rugged. The crew’s excitement was short-lived as the winds became light and we began to feel the effects of a strong westerly current. The beautiful island quickly became a real danger as the current pushed us close to the jagged rocks in the failing wind. For the next day-and-a-half we fought to keep Maiatla off the rocks of Isla Pinta, and then it’s neighboring Isla Marchena.  We were now well inside the Galápagos archipelago and surrounded by islands and breaking reefs. To make matters worse, our brand new radar had malfunctioned, leaving us totally blind at night with dangers all-around, including other vessels transiting the islands. It was up to the watch on duty to be vigilant.

Thanks to the relentless effort and skill of the crew, the morning of our tenth day at sea found us safe in open water, less than 100 miles from our destination but the weather wasn’t done with us just yet. As we approached the equator, a series of gales armed with stinging rain hammered us. It was in the midst of one of these gales, as Mark and I threw a second reef into the mainsail and with Marina at the helm, we crossed the equator leaving the northern hemisphere behind, we sailed into the South Pacific.

For the following 24 hours the battering gales came and went. Predawn found us closing in on our destination located on the western tip of San Cristóbal Island. We were a short eight miles from Baquerizo Harbour, but once again the weather gods proved to be fickle. As the sun rose, the wind that had been nicely driving us along died, leaving us wallowing powerlessly in a large swell. We were again dead in the water, helplessly drifting on a westerly current, away from San Cristobal. We were so close to our destination!

A couple of miles away was an ancient volcanic plug, Roca Pateadora or as the gringos and dive charters called it, Kicker Rock. The natural tower rises over 100 meters (300 feet) into the sky and as if cleaved in two by the gods, the plug is split from its guano-covered brow, down to the coral-carpeted seabed, creating a natural passage that the sea surges through. It was a spectacular and welcoming sight, that we would have loved to explore but we still had a problem with no engine. When we first lost the engine I used our Ham radio to contact our cruising agent in the Galápagos and informed him that we were disabled and required a tow into the harbour when we arrived, but I didn’t think we were close enough just yet to give him a call.

I launched our inflatable dinghy with its 15-horsepower engine, and attempted to tow Maiatla, with little success. Fortunately, we were spotted by an Ecuadorian patrol boat that came over to investigate. After explaining our predicament to the ship’s captain, he called our agent who was quick to come out to meet us in a fishing panga which towed us the rest of the way into the harbour.

After eleven days at sea, eight of which were spent battling gales, we dropped anchor in Puerto Baquerizo, near a concrete jetty that we shared with the resident sea lion and marine iguana population.  After clearing customs, we had officially arrived in the Galápagos and just one day before the arrival of our spouses. We would have a South Pacific celebration of Christmas.

Marina and Nick spent a couple of weeks in the islands before returning home. Mark and his wife Teri would stay with us aboard Maiatla for three weeks before departing, leaving Janet and I to island-hopping around the incredible Galápagos Island’s before sailing for the Panama Canal in mid-February.

Check out the video series at youtube.com/take5newstv

Andrew W. Gunson resides in Cedar. He is a sailor and author of The Tahiti Syndrome- Hawaiian Style, Voyage of the Maiatla with the Naked Canadian. He is currently working on his third book  chronicling the voyage of the Maiatla to Panama via Galagagos. Check out his books and follow the adventures at https://thenakedcanadian.wordpress.com

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