Panama Canal

 

Canal Transit

29th to 30th April

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Line Handlers – James, Carolyn, Gabriel, Steve

It’s been a stimulating fascinating fun rewarding and pretty tiring couple of days.

There are lots of well-written descriptions of the Panama Canal, the history, the engineering, its importance in economic and political terms, current statistics et al. (Just do a quick internet search to find it.) I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to go through with Henrietta.

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First Adviser, Osualdo

Left Shelter Bay marina about midday on Saturday, with my ‘line-handlers’ Steve, Carolyn, James and Gabriel, anchored for a few hours below the first set of locks (Gatun) while awating our ‘adviser’ Osualdo. Then late afternoon, rafted three abreast with a catamaran in the middle, gently entered the first lock behind a red cargo ship. Shuffling slowly forwards and upwards, it was dark by the time we’d climbed the three giant lock chambers, each 1,000 ft long, to Gatun Lake, which is the vast man-made lake created by damming the Gatun River that stores the water for the locks. Overnight tied alongside a mega mooring buoy.

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Dark by the time we’re up to Gatun LLake level

Next day, after sleepless night, (hot still sticky weather), a quick swim in the fresh water (crocodiles, so you don’t hang about), and breakfast, while we await a new ‘adviser’ (boats that stop for a night, like us, have one for the ‘up’ bit, another for crossing the Lake and going down.  There are now four yachts rafted alongside the buoy, and I count eight or nine nationalities represented. Everyone is excitable and chatty.

Then, with ‘adviser no 2’, the affable and informative Carlos, on board, we motor most of the day across Gatun Lake, stopping briefly alongside another mega mooring buoy for lunch in heavy rain. Arriving for the downward locks on Sunday afternoon, we lose the catamaran and raft instead with two other monohulls.

Then, lock down in front of a slinky white cruise ship called “Seven Seas Mariner” and, with another cruise ship, “Amsterdam”, dark blue, no rust) in the adjacent lock, there’s a fairly frantic  photographic orgy going on. We feel like film stars – ok for half an hour maximum. In case you think there are lots of cruise ships, there are not that many. These were the only two we saw amongst the steady stream of cargo vessels and tankers, all weekend. Perhaps they put all us leisure types together so we could have the photo orgy.

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Bridge of the Americas ahead

Thank you to all my crew. Everyone was appreciative, knowledgable, interesting, polite and helpful beyond measure.  

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My crew departing and taking hired lines and fenders

Now its Monday and aPublic Holiday in Panama – as it is in Britain. I’ve been to colourful market and have lots of oranges and onions and goodness knows what, and  I wobble and roll about on a mooring as ships, tugs and Panama speedy types motor earnestly back and forth. Time to go shopping again, post this update, have a look round Panama City, and decide where to sail next (or not). I’ll wait for more wind…..

 

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San Blas Islands to Colon

San Blas to Portobelo to Shelter Bay

25th to 28th April

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Seafront at Portobelo

Left San Blas Islands very early one morning and sailed and motored slowly the forty odd miles to Portobelo.

Christopher Columbus got to Portobelo ages ago. Apparently he discovered it on 2nd November 1502 on his fourth voyage. Then for many years it was the chief export spot for gold on its way from Peru to Spain, so it would have been an important place. Hard to imagine now, but it’s still a beautiful sheltered tree-lined bay with howler monkeys giving their unique unsettling chorus late most afternoons, and there are some handsome crumbling relics from the colonial era, including some 18th century forts with wonderful heavyweight rusted cannon lying haphazardly in the grass (Doesn’t look as if they’ve been touched for 200 years.). I’m sure it’ll all be restored and smartened up in a few years time as local tourism increases, and the preservation people get going; but for now Portobelo is small, laid-back, seriously scruffy and ill-kempt with litter scattered everywhere, decrepit old cars, peeling paintwork and crumbling buildings.

I liked the colour of the place and had a good lunch at Ida’s place.

Then, after a couple of nights in Portobelo Bay, back through the fleet of anchored ships waiting for the canal and into Shelter Bay marina. There I pick up emails including lots from my agent (for the Canal), Erick, wanting urgently to know where I was and what was happening, and telling me new dates for transit have come forward by a couple of weeks etc etc. In short it seems I could have ‘gone through’ a week or more ago.

Panama Canal Authority works in a mysterious way. Instead of yachts only going through late one day, mooring overnight halfway, and continuing the next, they now may go at any time, the time being a surprise until a few hours beforehand.

Never mind, I’m busy now: – shopping, port clearance, planning, clothes washing, boat fixing and tidying, and sociability……and preparing food (as I must cook for the six people who’ll be on board for a day or two to transit).

Now the lines (4 x 125ft) and fenders (8 x big and fat) have been delivered and heaped on Henrietta’s foredeck. Sometime tomorrow, with my four line handlers aboard, we’ll go and anchor, wait for our ‘adviser'(a sort of pilot guy who comes with us and I presume tells me what to do) and start to go through the locks. We should get to the Pacific sometime over the weekend. It’s all very exciting!

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Lines and fenders piled high

 

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San Blas Islands

Colon to San Blas Islands

12th to 25th April

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Fine colour and stitchng on a “mola”

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My Viking neighbour, Marinus

Shelter Bay Marina, as I said in the last post, was fine, well-run, pleasingly sociable and convenient for transit of the Canal, but for me with over two weeks more to wait, it was unstimulating and expensive, and with little breeze, stiflingly stuffily hot. So I sailed away and have thoroughly enjoyed an excursion back to the east of Panama. 

It wasn’t easy sailing east against prevailing wind and current. After many months of going downwind with Trade Winds I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it can be thrashing to windward in choppy seas and wind to F 6 ; the San Blas islands the goal after two days’ pounding – with just brief overnight stops at Portobelo and Isla Linton on the way.

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Overnight anchorage at Portobelo

(Since then, there’s been very little wind other than onshore breeze from late morning most days.)

What of San Blas? ……Quoting from Eric Bauhaus’s excellent “ Panama Cruising Guide”, “The San Blas Islands are a vast archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast composed of over 340 islands…..They are unique in many ways, home to the indigenous Guna Indians, who have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas.” The islands stretch, a few miles offshore, for about 100 miles along the Panama virgin rainforest northeast coast towards Colombia (though most of us just sail a small western part). The Gunas call the islands and the adjacent mainland territory Guna Yala. (San Blas was the name given by Spanish invaders so they don’t like it.)…here are some islands…….


Not quite 100, I think

They are autonomous and though they welcome visitors they don’t allow foreigners to buy land or invest in Guna Yala, and non-Guna may not settle or intermarry. There are about 55,000 Guna and they are good-looking and small, ”..rivaled in tribal shortness only by the pygmies.” (Having said which, the ones I’ve met are usually well over 5 feet.) Many of them live to a great age and somewhere I took a photo of a woman who told me she was 100, though personally I think she was probably in her 90’s. She asked for a dollar for her picture to be taken. The story is that they’d seen postcards of themselves in traditional tribal dress for sale in Panama City and the cards cost a dollar! The dollar fee is usual and fine by me. Apart from buying the “molas” or bracelets there are few opportunities here to spend money.

Choosing which molas to buy

But, enough of this, if interested you can no doubt read lots more in Wikipedia and I’m guessing there’ll have been anthropologists at work here. (It would be a pretty soft number for them with such an easy way of life, friendly welcoming inhabitants, lack of jungle creepy crawlies, etc.)

I buy lots

I’ve sailed to several different anchorages in a few of the San Blas Cays, landed on perhaps 15 different islands (“dups”) and bought many “molas”, made by the Guna women, each intricately sewn by stitching and cutting layers of colourful cloth (there’s a photo or two somewhere), and I’ve had a bracelet wound and tied on by the kindly 70-year old Laora (Laura?). (They’re normally just for women but Laora didn’t seem bothered)

My bracelet is fitted and tied by Laora

Lots of  islands are uninhabited but many seem to have a family or two, and some tiny islands have whole villages squeezed onto them.  Until you land, little islands may look deserted, but then lurking beneath the coconut palms, you find a family or two quietly sitting  and chatting, often busy, outside their simple cane and palm-built huts, often supplemented with tarpaulins, furnished with some plastic garden chairs and hammocks. And the crude dug-out canoes are paddled and sailed hither and thither from island to island, trading, fishing and visiting neighbours. (I’ve just traded five avocadoes from Victor who visited in his dug-out, for some milk and tomato paste, which he wanted rather than the dollars I offered.)

It’s hard too to find a completely empty anchorage, though again, I am now nestled in one where “Henrietta” is the sole visitor. (It was a rather sinuous route in avoiding the coral heads and reefs on the way, and I guess that keeps crowds away.) The islands would of course have been emptier 20 years ago before so many yachts started to call in. There must be hundreds of boats here now, many from Panama but many from all over the world, passing briefly or spending months and years here. (It’s becoming a popular place for ‘snowflakes’, i..e. sailors who come here for the winter but then disappear home to America or Europe for the spring and summer, leaving boats in Panama, which is cheaper than East Caribbean and well south of the hurricane belt.)

A few days ago, calmly settled in a once popular anchorage that had no sign of life, I was about to enjoy a swim in solitary isolation when a fellow yachtsman (who must have seen “Henrietta” on AIS) called on VHF and asked if I’d heard about the recent crocodile attack. I said “Yes, but don’t know which island”. Apparently I’d found it. “Swimming is not an option” my fellow yachtsmen advised; and I was grateful for his advice. And left later that day.

Some of what is washed ashore

It seems very unjust that gentle friendly people like these islanders will be early casualties of global warming sea level rises. Few islands are more than a couple of feet above the sea. And they already feel the onslaught of the plastic rubbish that blows across the oceans to end up littering their shores. (And drifting off the subject again, surely it’s long past time to levy heavy taxes on all plastic? And harsh penalties, perhaps disembowelment, for those who carelessly discard it. Maybe too tricky – but please do think hard before you use it. And challenge folk who use it needlessly.)

….noone ever tires of fine sunsets………..


There are too many encounters and sights and incidents to recount in this blog snapshot. Suffice to say these islands have provided some truly rewarding experiences and I am glad that delayed canal transit gave time to visit. I feel quite reluctant to head back to Colon and the Canal Zone. But, as an Australian skipper recently told me, “You need to get a move on mate. It’s a long way across [the Pacific]”. Almost everyone I know is well on their way over by now. As ever, I need a kick up the backside…….

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Waiting in Panama

Panama – Waiting

5th April to…

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Waiting in Shelter Bay marina, Panama

“Henrietta” and I have waited in Shelter Bay marina, on the Caribbean side of Panama, for a week already. The queue for yachts to transit the Panama Canal seems to be three to four weeks at the moment with usually just two or three boats going a day, sandwiched between a constant stream of big ships moving through 24 hours a day, every day and night of the year. (As a yacht you do pay a lot to use the canal but ships pay tens or hundreds of thousands dollars each, so they understandably have priority. They’re the mainstay of the Panamanian economy!)

Looking on the bright side, my agent Erick and assistant Peter have been efficient; Henrietta has been measured by the Canal Authority admeasurer; and I – or rather the good ship Henrietta – has a number, and I’ve signed lots of papers and paid the fees. (All feels a bit like Charlie’s Golden Ticket!)

 

And I’ve been to Colon a couple of times to shop and get a stamp in the passport. Colon is not a pretty spot; it needs a good tidy up and, in contrast to Panama City, which is a fine city on the Pacific side of Panama, Colon is too full of crime for comfort.

The marina is about an hour’s bus ride from Colon – nearer two hours if the canal lock gates are open for ships to pass, when the bus crosses by ferry. Because it’s a bit isolated, good organising boaty folk manage a schedule of ‘things-to-do’ (when we’re not working on boats, chatting, reading and so on); i.e. yoga, walks, aquafit, films and games and suchlike, and as nearly every boat is either waiting to go to the Pacific or just arrived from the Pacific, there’s lots of international sociability. And of course there’s a bar and restaurant, and swimming pool. We don’t swim in the marina; water’s a bit grubby and crocodiles live here (one cruised up between the pontoons yesterday!)

But Henrietta and I quickly grow tired of marinas so plan to leave here soon and sail to other bits of Panama while we await our turn to go to the Pacific, probably at the end of April.

 

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Bonaire to Panama

Bonaire Diving & Panama Waiting

23rd March to 5th April

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The island of Bonaire is for divers. There’s not much else except a good relaxed feeling, a few hills in the north and salt works in the south (salt that goes to scatter on the highways of North America, I was told), plus a few easy walks or, if energetic, you can hire a Dutch bicycle and pedal about a bit. But it’s very hot.

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Left-over Dutch Colonial bits

For divers there are dozens of wonderful well-managed coral sites (the whole place is a Protected Marine Park), and you can readily go diving straight from shore without the palaver of getting there by boat.

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Moored close to shore

I ‘discovered’ diving with a friendly relaxed Dive Centre that just happened to be opposite my first mooring -close enough to row ashore too. That first memorable and marvellous experience was with Yellow Sub Dive Friends, and Luke, a calm competent Englishman, one of the international dive addicts who seem to teach anywhere on the planet that has a recreational diving job and good diving. (A bit like surfers who have a similar addiction.) Anyway, within two hours of looking at Scuba stuff for the very first time, and after watching a video, we were kitted out and 10 metres down in perfectly clear water and hovering around hundreds of exquisite colourful tropical fish, marvelling at so much variety of coral and fish life – unbelievable!

Then, as Yellow Sub Diving Centre, didn’t immediately have an Open Water course for me, I went elsewhere, to VIP Diving another friendly helpful professional diving outfit where, after some mind-draining homework, Dutchman Ron, tried to teach a Canadian couple and me, how to do it properly. Ron was super friendly and helpful and  pretty patient, but I was spellbound by fishes and not always good at paying attention! It takes a while to learn how to be a fish.

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Visitors’ Moorings, Bonaire

When you see pictures or film of divers, they’re usually either gliding effortlessly and elegantly along, fins idly flipping away as miraculously colourful fishes cruise by, or else they look like cartoon character frogs, looking straight at you, wide-eyed through their masks, blowing bubbles and looking lost, I was often nearer the cartoon frog end of the diving spectrum.

I used to think Scuba diving amounted to a bottle of air on your back and a hosepipe to your mouth. Take a suck of air when you wanted it. But it’s much more elaborate than that. There are lots of pipes, and weights and gadgets and miscellaneous stuff, plus a clever inflatable waistcoat sort of thing, as well as the bottle of air on your back.

Seeing fabulous fish, every shape and size and vivid colour you can imagine, apparently tame, (so accustomed are they to divers), and coral so close and in such abundance is magical. But I think diving isn’t really for me. I seek a simple life, free of the clobber and cluttering confusion of stuff. And, by its very nature (humans not designed to live ‘down there’), there’s too much clobber needed for safe diving. I’ll maybe dive again; but snorkelling is a simpler way of seeing underwater life – albeit not as close or varied as deeper down. (I also should have noticed earlier on that almost all keen divers have good teeth, really shining super white and strong teeth. Maybe I might have guessed it wasn’t really meant for me.)

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Ted, Paula, M, Ron (Check the teeth!)

After all that time underwater it was time to move on from the delights and challenges of Bonaire. (Already I was a few weeks behind the haphazard sort of schedule I follow, well aware that most sailing boats had already reached the Pacific, whilst “Henrietta” had about 750 miles to go just to reach Panama.) So, after a few drinks in the charming little bar “Little Havana” – renowned locally for its music and wide choice of Cuban cigars – we sailed out of Bonaire.

 

 

Six days later, yesterday, I reached Panama – regrettably missing stops in both Colombia and San Blas islands on the way. They’d been part of one of the original so-called ‘outline plans’. (Stuff plans! I’m not running a business school.) Sod’s Law of destination arrivals most often sees me reach new places after dark. Panama was no exception and in the dark and on chartplotter, the next few miles looked so chockablock with ships and buoys and miscellaneous hazardous stuff  that I dared not enter at night and instead lingered sleepless for many hours before entering the vast canal approach zone after dawn, as instructed by the Cristobal Signal Station, following close behind a big red tanker.

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Approaching Panama – ships at anchor (on chartplotter)

The sail had been pleasant enough. Although the reputation of this patch of Western Caribbean at this time of year is for very strong winds, most of the voyage was a rolling run under just the poled-out genoa There was just one day of gale and near gale, when ‘Henrietta’ rolled wildly in turbulent ill-mannered swell with just a scrap of genoa, surfing at up to 10 knots, while I tried to make a pot of tea.

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Henrietta” follows behind this tanker

For now I have moored in calm and friendly Shelter Bay marina, the most popular waiting spot for yachts intending to transit the Panama Canal. I’ll tell you more another time. It looks like a long wait here, but meantime  it’s good to have friendly multinational sociable company.

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Entering Shelter Bay marina

 

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Martinique and Bonaire

Martinique & Bonaire

22nd February to 22nd March

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Passing Diamond Rock, Martinique

Delayed much longer than planned in Martinique meant I sadly missed revisiting islands further north or south, where I’d planned to meet sailor friends from last year. Nearly three weeks in Martinique; it took that long to get new Hydrovane stuff from England and fit it. Satisfying though to have it working again. Another little bit is still needed to achieve perfection and is being sent to Panama.

(Photos: installing new Hydrovane rudder shaft)

 

(The travels of bits of Hydrovane as recorded by Fedex tracking make an exciting sort of itinerary. The little bit went Nottingham, GB – Leicester GB – Stansted GB – Memphis TS – Bogota CO – Panama City PA …now delayed (they’ll want more money!) Little wonder the bit itself cost £15 but the shipping £44 – so far. Anyhow, Hydrovane have been very efficient and helpful throughout.)

While on the subject of help and efficiency, I thank all the fellow sailors who helped me and Henrietta in and out of the boatyard maintenance pontoon at Le Marin. If you have tried reversing a hefferlump yacht stern to a pontoon, picking up two buoys for bow on the way in, plus getting two lines ashore for the stern, in strong gusting crosswinds, without sinking neighbouring boats etc, you’ll know it’s not a single-handed job! In the event I think about seven folk helped me in, and two helped me out including kind amateur tugmen in their inflatable tenders. No wonder I prefer anchoring.

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Brian and Coralie, delightful company, advice and assistance

The maintenance pontoon in Le Marin has perhaps a dozen boats at any one time. It’s one of the busiest sweatiest place I’ve ever been. From dawn to after dusk: welding sparks fly, angle grinders whine, sanding, banging, grunting, multilingual cursing; and smells of glues, resins and paints. It was  a relief to leave, though I’d appreciated the company and easy access to chandleries and shops, and I had to be very close to pontoon to replace vane rudder shaft.

To finish off on a review of work done in Martinique, Marco (a delightful unflappable and gymnastic electrician ex-Parisian  liveaboard …” came here many years ago, work enough for money for sailing…”) helped me remove solar panels, solder bits..now all fixed…Tilikum (Victron agent) and Frederic, another French exile c. 25 years since sailing here, brilliant in replacing regulator….Jacques, yet another liveaboard Frenchman now heading back to Greece and with more links to LA than France, kind and knowledgeable for Hydrovane assistance….Unnamed (but with infuriating French charm) electronics outfit, hopeless with fixing SSB radio (indeed, much worse than useless as it now does not transmit at all!….I give a heartfelt weary Gallic shrug and mutter a rude French word. I’ll go without SSB transmit capability. But I successfully fixed most of the items on my ‘to do’ list.

Through Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) – as much a social club as a sailing one in the Caribbean – I was happy to meet new and old faces. (Strictly speaking we’re all old rather than new, but you know what I mean). And I found some of the Six Nations Rugby was on telly.

A day sail then 30 miles up the coast of Martinique to old capital, St Pierre – obliterated by volcanic eruption (which I told you about when there last year. See last year’s post if you want). It’s one of my favourite little Caribbean towns; pretty, unhurried, hospitable and altogether charming.

Photos in St Pierre, Martinique

 

Then, desperately needing the stimulus and challenge of somewhere new, I sailed the 450 miles over to Bonaire.

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Company en route to Bonaire (a laughing gull, I think)

Arrived three and a half days later in darkness and, after exasperatingly long time found a vacant mooring buoy (to help preserve the coral, no anchoring is allowed), drank a tin of beer and went to bed. (It is not easy to find a little mooring buoy in the dark, let alone tie up to it – on your own!) Next morning I find glorious crystal clear water all around, swim with pretty tropical fishes and check the mooring.

If you haven’t heard of Bonaire, then until a year ago, I hadn’t either. Bonaire is the ‘B’ of the ABC islands, Dutch Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela. (The A is Aruba, the C is Curacaou).

(Images from Bonaire. The pretty yacht is “Little Coconut” last seen in Madeira!)

Bonaire has about 16,000 people, nearly half are Dutch. (cf. The two cruise ships here yesterday and the two today have over 11,000 passengers between them, and they’re each over four times higher than the highest building on the island! There’s only just room to squeaze them in and pilots are superhumanly skillful at parking!)  

It’s flat here – like most of Holland, I suppose. People come here to dive, and if you’re a diving buff, I gather it’s in the top ten of the world’s best spots. “Many more dive shops than bakeries” I was told, and it’s true. Languages give a clue to Bonaire’s history. Officially they are Papiamento (itself a blend of every language you’ve ever heard), plus Dutch, English and Spanish. Residents seem to slip effortlessly from one language to any other in a trice, and always make an Englishman feel especially humble and hopeless. I should add that the music is more engaging than I came across in Eastern Caribbean (where, apart from a rare good steel band, it’s mainly poppy sloppy pap), and the place is very very relaxed. As a Dutch Territory, it’s clean and tidy, people polite, direct and moderately efficient.

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Washing Day in Martinique (bed sheet blew away!)

So anyway, now I’m here, I’m going to learn to dive. This will mean a stay of another week. I really don’t know what to do next. I want to see Colombia and San Blas islands. But Panama is still nearly 800 miles away and I’m late for the Pacific, both late in the season, and late in life. And I ache and feel mighty tired as well! Plus I recognise we can never see all the wonders of our amazing planet, so maybe north to Jamaica and Cuba is a better bet.

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Vegetarian at Sea

Food Glorious Food

March 2017

 

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Typical Caribbean Market

Waiting for spare parts there have been few excitements in recent boat life. Boaty chores, cleaning/tidying/fixing, doing odds and ends, some social life and sorting photos. And then, this morning it occurred to me, I thought you should know more about food – and tell you that a vegetarian eats very well on ocean crossings. Furthermore, it saves a pig and also reduces risk of food poisoning that goes with eating long-stored dead animal flesh!

Essentially my seafaring diet is always vegetable with something. Something such as lentil, bean, nuts, egg or cheese. Doesn’t sound exciting? Read on!

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Market veg is usually better than supermarket veg. It lasts better if it’s not been chilled (which most supermarket veg is). Staples are the usual: rice, pasta, potato et al. And I have a pressure cooker for the pulses and beans, and after soaking, it’s only five to ten minutes under pressure. (Lucky the pressure cooker was rescued before it went to a local museum). Herbs and spices are colourful, varied and wonderful, and readily available almost everywhere.

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Colourful Spices and Magic Extras

Gas is always at a premium so cooking has to be done on hob. No oven or grill except for holiday or birthday treats, or with special visitors.

Finally, and most important, give all dishes a French title. (Or Italian if you must)  Any meal is effortlessly transformed and elevated with exotic French words. The French realised a long time ago that food could only be eaten if it had a French name (pizza being  an exception). That’s also why Michelin is the bee’s knees; and Tripadvisor so unreliable. For example, if my meal is with lentils or beans, it’s quelque chose ‘au vent’. Without the lentils or beans, it’s the same thing but ‘sans vent’. You may guess why. Culinary disasters like burnt bread can be transformed as ‘pain de la nuit’. (The wonders of French ‘O’ level a long time ago!). (Incidentally, lawyers use Latin for much the same reason as cooks use French: it adds exclusivity! It might impress some of us too.)

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“Pain de la Nuit”

In a nutshell then; herbs, spices and French title, and you may consider you live like royalty!
Here are some more pictures of a few of this year’s Atlantic meals.P1020170

 

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Atlantic Crossing 2017

Atlantic

La Gomera to Martinique

31st January to 21st February

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Leaving La Gomera

It’s a long way across the Atlantic and a lot happens. If you want the full version – the complete works – then skip this bit. But if a summary is enough then here’s a brief version.

Very much a tale of two halves: first part, about 1,500 miles, had good wind, confusing swell and heartening progress of around 140-150 miles a day. Second part was slow slow slow, not nearly enough wind (Henrietta is a bit of a lump and, running, likes over 15 knots to keep her sails billowing with any sort of vigour), so, for the last 1,200 miles, at times we crept along at under 3 knots (that’s an average sort of walking speed…just imagine walking across the Atlantic!). Damage? First part saw broken Hydrovane rudder shaft (which is serious trouble) and half solar panels fail (which is moderate trouble), and cauliflower going rotten (which is smelly trouble) and skipper mildly injured and on painkillers, so by the time we were half way I was super tired and starting to plan life as an OAP in rural Devon, thinking of warm log fires, a country walk, a glass of red wine and maybe a pair of slippers.

The longer version?…..

Crossing this ocean east to west from Cape Verde islands about this time last year, in January 2016, I couldn’t think where the time had gone. The 15 days it took just seemed to whizz past and afterwards, if people asked “What did you do?”, I couldn’t really answer, except saying I’d been pretty busy. I was busy too but, if you’re single-handed, of course you don’t have anyone to back up and verify your tales of industrious bizzyness, and also you aren’t spending lots of time discussing things, great and small, or agreeing what to do or when to eat, or all those other things that couples or groups of friends may do. The solo sailor just stews such matters around in his or her head, does more daydreaming and fantasising, and then does it.

Anyway, this time I kept a more complete diary to note what happens – at least until I got too tired to be bothered. This is perhaps more for my interest than yours; I don’t like to have too many chunks of life just disappearing without explanation. It suggests idleness and goes against what we’re taught and have wired into us with all that Calvinist/Protestant stuff. And, because my own personal wiring makes me naturally lazy, I’ve been prone to too much guilt and so nowadays try to reduce the time spent just blatantly doing totally absolutely nothing. It’s wearisome – but that’s another story.

Before leaving La Gomera and facing a few weeks of no shops, no alcohol, no people and no serious puffing exercise, I almost overdosed on all of them. Apart from the shops bit, I knew I’d miss the others, especially the people. So on my last Gomera mountain walk I picked up some fellow walkers, first three Swedish ladies, then a Dutch couple, and added to a Scottish couple from neighbouring yacht, enjoyed an afternoon and evening of chat and drink. I think it’s nice for non-sailors to see the inside of a sailing boat, and Dutch and Swedish walkers seemed intrigued that any normal person would want to live in a little boat. Also, as a result of the Brexit business, (sorry to bring it up again!), I’ve been trying to inform every EU person I meet that I was out of line with my voting countrymen, and in fact I have only a few friends who were mistaken in wanting to exit. Britain, I arrogantly suggest, made a barmy decision based on the half-truths, self-interests, inflated egos and distorted press coverage of a nation trying to find a scapegoat (in this case ‘Brussels’) for the fact that it felt it was going down the plughole. (In truth, we were nowhere near a plughole – though may now be spiralling slowly towards one). There is a fairly popular European view, if not the informed political one, that Britain has always been a pain in the arse of the EU, and we may as well go our own way and behave like a self-centred brat if we want. Good riddance some of our European neighbours say! It’s too depressing for words.

Oh dear, here we go…drifting off the sailing stuff again…

 

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Another ocean dawn….

In fact, the more time I spent in La Gomera, one of the last civilised outposts of probably the most civilised continent on earth, the less inclined I felt to leave. Don’t ask me why I did. I don’t really know.

 

But, I did. Weighed down and lockers bursting with masses of fresh fruit and veg, and freshwater tanks filled, and with wind forecast ok, I left…..

Then, 21 days (and nights) and some 2,700 nautical miles later, I sailed into Martinique, which is a French outpost territory in the Eastern Caribbean. (I’m still clinging to Europe you see!)

 

What did I do while Henrietta worked mightily carrying me across? Well, you may not believe me, but it is quite hard work. If you haven’t sailed an ocean, you first have to imagine the constant rolling motion of a boat running before the wind in an irregular two to five metre swell, wind for the first half seldom less than F.5/6. “Rolling” implies some sort of soothing rocking movement, but it’s not like that; it’s unpredictable, sometimes wild and lurching, sometimes beguilingly steady for a few seconds. If not sitting down you have to hold on almost all the time with at least one hand. Just as you think a pattern of regular rolls is happening, and you’re about to do a two-handed task, like chopping vegetables say or joining two bits of wire, a violent roll comes along, and you’re back to one hand. So, everything is done slowly and can take ages, particularly everyday chores like cooking and sail changing and repair work. And at night, sleep is disturbed of course. But never mind, we think we do it because we want to; and it is, I assure you, a lovely way to see a huge inky blue ocean and trade wind skies and magical dark starlit nights. Though as time goes by, I fondly imagine the sheer delight of a stable bed, an armchair in front of a good film, a warm shower and eating off  a china plate instead of a plastic bowl. But know that’s ‘grass is greener’ thinking. In another time,in a place not far from here, we might after all have been shackled slaves suffering unimaginable horrors in the bowels of a trading vessel.

So what happens? Here’s a typical day taken from my diary (abridged): “dawn getting later, but still on UT [GMT] so having tea in the dark at 8am, just under 2,000 miles to go, into tropics now but not very warm, no flying fish yet. Last night, joy: while below, heard squeaks, found I was racing along with pod of playful dolphins, sang and called to them, which I think they like, they stayed half an hour (will never tire of the happy feelings that come with meeting sealife. Two days earlier a huge whale, at least 20 metres, surfaced with that loud base grunting blast as it spouted nearby – just how you’d imagine an ogre would grunt/puff if it surfaced after swimming ten lengths of the swimming pool underwater.) First long-tailed tropic bird appeared later and fluttered around for an hour before flapping away to the south (they look too fragile for mid-ocean life). Started new book, (Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins”); on to lesson 5 of Spanish course (albeit a bit late now I’ve left Spanish territory) but fell asleep mid-lesson, thorough all-over wash (cleanliness next to Godliness and all that), oh no! Main solar panels failed again, spend over three hours with multimeter and screwdrivers trying to fix, without success but bruised arms, hurt back and cut hand, genoa reefed/unreefed repeatedly, cook (chilli con carne, without the carne), clean, wash-up, tidy up…now it’s dark already, brush teeth, wash face, fret about solar panels and very rolly so hopeless sleep, and read Kate Atkinson instead, eat codeine pills (and write this)….”.

That’s it. A more-or-less typical day.

 

A day later, the rudder shaft of Hydrovane snapped. It didn’t hit anything but I guess endless stresses led to fatigue. (For non-boaty people, Hydrovane is the wind-powered self-steering device that keeps me on course). I’d sensed its slow responsiveness, went to stern to investigate (very very rolly seas) and was horrified to see the rudder shaft bent. It’s a 30mm heavyweight stainless steel rod. While considering options, it – this super-strong s/s shaft – snapped and rudder broke away, dragged along like a demented great fish on its tether. Luckily I retrieved the rudder, did lots of other boaty things, and had a cup of tea. …and….for the next 1,400 miles the autohelm (electric self-steering system) just about managed. But, as it has an old-age knack of periodically stopping, there were few periods of rest.

 

Between tending to steering, adjusting sails, cooking, washing, cleaning, miscellaneous chores and other discernible spells of activity, there’s an awful lot of thinking and day-dreaming and half-hearted planning. It’s all a lot like life on land for dirt-dwellers really. It’s just that there are no people here, just a wonderful overarching sky and endless empty mighty deep-blue ocean. Oh! And there’s no telly, no phone, no shops, no human, no news and no internet. (And these last must fill a big chunk of most modern people’s lives.)

And I can confirm, as I did last year, that the Atlantic Ocean is not a pond; and it’s really ever so silly to say ‘pond’. How would a hippopotamus feel if you called it a water vole – just think?

And another question I’ve been asked by fellow European sailor (and I’d like an answer to this one): Why is so much in Britain referred to as ‘Royal’? Not just the Royal Family (they’re almost univerally applauded), but yacht clubs, agricultural shows, chinaware, even a few towns, a Cruising Club, an Automobile Club and all sorts of other things. Plenty of other countries have monarchs but they don’t get carried away with the Royal stuff like Britain does. Is it just because we’re so obsessively stuck in the 19th century or snobbish, and consider a Royal pre-fix adds cache – a nation, not of shopkeepers but old-fashioned status-seeking snobs? …Answers please?

So that’s it. I have no idea what comes next. In theory, there’s the Pacific, Europe, East Coast USA, or staying here in the Caribbean to choose from. While weary, aching and awaiting spare parts to fix Henrietta, I dream about that log fire in rural Devon. (Haven’t had any slippers since school days  and know I don’t really want any now!).I suspect my stamina has ebbed to a new low and wonder if it may recover. Oh! But I’m enjoying lots of swimming, and French Caribbean bread and wine from Bordeaux, and other people’s company.

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La Palma, La Gomera

La Palma and La Gomera

17th to 26th January

My favourite Canary Islands.p1040575

 

p1040574These are small islands. It would be a shame to overwhelm them with visitors, so I am quick to point out that they probably wouldn’t suit you! There are no golden beaches, nightlife is subdued – perhaps I’d call it ‘refined’ – and souvenir shops and Michelin restaurants are in short supply. But  there are lots of bananas and, for a quiet old Englishman (late middle-age anyway), these islands have enough to keep me perfectly content for many many months.

 

 

After Stephanie left, I stayed a while longer on La Palma, happily sandwiched between my three delightful and beautiful Dutch neighbours (hopeless with names I recall them as bracelet, brains and heartache, and trust they’re not offended). Never very keen on sitting about, I swam and walked more cliff and mountain paths and tried not to drink too much.

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Emily and Sarah

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Next, unplanned and spur-of-the-moment my sister, Margie, arranged a short visit. So I sailed back to La Gomera, ferried across to Tenerife, bought a new iphone and returned with said sister. (These things are not linked: my phone was broken).
Margie has today returned to Somerset. It was a treat to see her. And now it’s hard to tear myself away from La Gomera. There is not much wind in the air anyway. So I’ll stay. One day soon -maybe – I’ll roll up my sleeves, buy some onions, summon more energy, and head across the Atlantic.

 

 

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Good breeze approaching San Sebastian (I was passing…)p1040561

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Western Canary Islands

La Gomera, Tenerife, La Palma

24th December to 16th January 2017

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Down to Valle Gran Rey (La Gomera) with George

For the past three weeks I’ve had company on board; first, son George, then friend, Stephanie. Since my favourite humans are my children and nice women, this has been a bit of a treat – even if Stephanie, for all her many virtues, is not a liberal vegetarian. (Stephanie won’t, I hope, mind me saying this!) For the next few weeks, if not months and years, I shall be single-handed, so it has seemed important to enjoy the company of others – stickily despondent as my current mood may be.

Of course, as a single-handed sailor – or even not as a single-handed sailor – you do meet many other lovely folk. For,  most waterborne people agree, one of the greater delights of sailing – or travelling in general – is meeting, talking, and exchanging ideas, opinions, experiences and knowledge with others. But these encounters will always be fleeting compared with the hourly and daily contact of familiar others. Never mind… all travel is enriched with understanding (or trying to understand) fellow beings. The world seems such an overcrowded bundle of multiple confusion and fascination.

….The above stuff is not really what this blog set out to cover. But, if you read this, you might find it rather tedious to have a repetitive diet of ‘where I go and what I do and who I meet and what I eat’ – hence: the odd rambly thought.

To cover briefly the where/what/who stuff….George and I enjoyed some typically inspiring walks on the island of La Gomera. With so many varied routes, you may spend many months here and rarely cover the same ground twice, and of course it was doubly delightful to share outings with my youngest son.

 

 

With George leaving me for the brighter lights of London for New Year, Stephanie and I, plus sailor-neighbours from Hampshire, Norway and Holland, enjoyed local New Year celebrations in San Sebastian de la Gomera (friendly and welcoming with magnificent fireworks and shared champagne). San Sebastian is perhaps my favourite little town on my favourite little island in all the Canary Islands – at least, while aboard a boat.

 

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gently sailing north with Stephanie

Thence, Stephanie and I sailed gently up the eastern side of Tenerife, via nights and launderette of Las Galletas, to the Tenerife capital, Santa Cruz. Whilst there in early January, we coincided with the ‘Procession of the Three Kings and Epiphany’. Apparently, children hereabouts don’t get their presents until the said holy kings have visited, some twelve days after Christmas itself. But we didn’t see these three latter-day gentlemen arrive after dark by helicopter in the football stadium and from there set forth through the city’s beautifully-lit streets, on camels; streets thronged with amiable local people though.

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From Tenerife, the wind forecast looked just-about-ok for the 120-mile trip round the top of Tenerife and then round the bottom of another island, La Palma, to the welcoming port of Tazacorte. In the event, conditions were not really ok and temperamental winds blew from any of the compass’s 360 degrees with anything between five and nearly 50 knots – so, it was a sleepless 24 hours.

On arrival we were not allowed into a berth (manoeuvres considered too risky) and, with strong south winds, spent the first night lurching, creaking and wallowing at a reception pontoon. Next day, wind eased and we shifted to a berth. And now, a week later, as I write this, I feel pretty much at home. I’ve enjoyed several new walks on La Palma. Henrietta is comfortably sandwiched between two Dutch yachts, between them sporting three charming and disarmingly attractive girls from Holland.

Here are some images from La Palma….

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Despite such delights, it’s been a time of half-hearted decision-making – i.e.not quite ‘-making’. I’ll head back to La Gomera in a day or two, or three. Then, try to work out if I really want to leave the beauty, the diversity, the security, the cultures and the delights of Europe (especially warm friendly Canary Islands) for the world’s less-privileged continents.

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