Monday 16 February 2015

Las Perlas

Only forty miles from Panama, yet the archipelago of Las Perlas feels very remote. A small group of pretty islands, famous for their pearls, they are largely uninhabited. Densely forested, with rocky outcrops and hidden beaches of the finest white sand.  With large tidal ranges, the water turns green as the tide ebbs and flows, suddenly clearing at slack water to reveal the sea life beneath.  Poorly charted with isolated rocks lurking just under the surface, we proceed with caution, the Bauhaus pilot book our constant companion.

We pick up the AIS signal of our fellow ARC yachts and head across to one of the famous anchorages; a channel between the islands of Chapera and MogoMogo, where the TV series Survivor was filmed. Although only 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific feels very different, with settled weather, calmer seas, and sirrus clouds that stretch across the far azure horizon, with no sign of the big white cumulus clouds of the Eastern Caribbean.

The World Cruising Club, who organise the World ARC Rally, appoints two of its staff to guide and shepherd our fleet around the world, with occasional appearances from Andrew Bishop, their charming CEO. Always conspicuous in bright yellow shirts, they make life very easy for us.  They manage our customs clearance and immigration, find us marina berths, organise the racing between legs with briefings, prize-givings and social events for the rally.  They are present at every stopover, always available on VHF channel 72 and always enormously helpful and resourceful.  Our current yellow shirts are Paul and Victor who are both in Contadora, the main island in Las Perlas and we will meet up with them for a beach barbecue before we start the next leg to the Galapagos Islands.

We call the other ARC boats and suggest a gathering on the beach for sun-downers. Everyone attends, bringing their own drinks, a few nibbles and their problems and successes of the past few days. We have become a cohesive group, and with so much in common conversation comes easy. Darkness falls and we launch our dinghies and head back to our respective boats for supper. The great thing about neighbours, even itinerant aquatic ones, is the possibility for impromptu gatherings, arranged at short notice with little preparation, easily disbanded without apology and a short journey home for supper and bed.

We collect Paulus from San Miguel, a small town on Isla Del Rey where the ferry from Panama delivers him onto the dock. He calls us on his mobile and after collecting a case of beer to replenish our dwindling stock, a small wooden boat delivers him to Juno, at anchor in the deeper water of the bay, accompanied by an entire suitcase of spare parts for the boat and 1,000 tea bags for the galley. We head south to a new anchorage that can only be accessed by a very narrow channel with a reef lying smack in the middle. Fatty plots a safe course using the Bauhuas pilot book, which I stupidly ignore with alarming consequences. Motoring through the centre of the narrow channel, no more than 80 metres wide, Andrew is keeping lookout standing on the boom, Paul and Consuelo are on the bow and Fatty is next to me in the cockpit. Suddenly I hear urgent shouts from the bow “Rock, rock,”. I put the engine hard in reverse. As Juno grinds to a halt, her engine racing, I see a huge rock just under the surface of the green water, right in the middle of the channel, and we miss it by no more than a few metres. Fatty is understandably cross that I didn’t pay closer attention to her route. Increasingly I have learnt to trust her instincts and her judgement on the boat and I make a note to also adhere to her pilotage with greater application in the future.

It is too hot in the protected anchorage so we motor north after lunch and anchor again in our favourite channel at Mogo Mogo and spend a day cleaning the hull. Rally Control have warned us that the authorities in Galapagos are very strict about yachts bringing unwanted marine species into their delicate ecosystem. This means that our hull must be spotless otherwise we will be turned away to clean the hull fifty miles offshore in the open ocean.  Andrew and I spend another two hours under the hull with our scuba tanks, removing barnacles and the thin coating of green algae that builds up quickly in these warm waters.  After some difficulty operating the new dive compressor I finally get the beast working with new O rings and a hefty dose of elbow grease.  We refill our tanks on board and I go under water for a final session, removing those last few barnacles from around the bow-thruster blades and behind the rudder-stock. I hope it will be enough for the algae police in Galapagos.

Our final evening in Las Perlas is spent on the beach on Contadora, the most sophisticated of the islands, but still with few inhabitants, two small supermarkets and a few hotels, accessible by golf cart from the airfield. In our case we are meeting on the beach outside the Romantica Hotel, where we land our dinghies and help each other to drag them up above the high-water mark. When we arrive everyone is in the hotel bar; cold beer in one hand and laptop in the other. The hotel has good internet access and as we have been offshore for a week this fix of internet is important to keep in touch with friends and family, and in my case also to upload my blog of the Panama Canal.  As darkness falls we sit on the silky soft sand of the beach where a barbecue is served. We win first prize for leg two – from Santa Marta to San Blas. It is a wonderful evening of good company, cold beers and the prospect of the sail to Galapagos, only marred by Fatty feeling unwell and I drop her back to the boat for an early night.

The following morning we are uncertain what to do. Fatty has been awake all night with food poisoning and needs to rest in her bunk, yet we are due to start the 800 mile trip to Galapagos. Fatty urges us to set sail and I reluctantly agree, leaving her in her cabin while we prepare Juno for the five day trip which will take us through the notorious Doldrums where we will cross the Equator on our way to Galapagos.  After a brisk start the forecasted winds strengthen all night, peaking at forty knots and creating a confused sea with big waves coming up behind us at short intervals. Hurtling along at 13 knots with heavily reefed sails we also have to run the gantlet of tankers and cargo vessels approaching the Panama Canal from the Pacific. Our AIS tells us that in ten minutes we are due to pass two large freighters at less than two hundred feet; far to close for comfort so we alter course to pass close behind them, huge bursts of spray flying from their bows as they plough into the waves, heavily laden with cargo from the sweatshops of Asia.

After two days rolling around in her bunk in big seas, I am relieved that Fatty is showing signs of recovery, hastened by reassurance from Dr Spike Briggs, one of the doctors who run our 24 hour telemed service who I contact on the satellite phone.  It is quite remarkable that Spike is in a ski resort in the French Alps and we are five hundred miles off the coast of Panama, yet he is able to diagnose her symptoms and prescribe medication from our first aid kit which now extends to two boxes of prescription drugs, cannulas, syringes, a defibrillator and assorted splints and bandages.

We enter the area near the equator called the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), more colloquially known as the Doldrums; the wind dies away, and we start the engine.  I come on deck for my night watch at 3am and notice lights behind the transom. I assume that someone has accidentally turned on the running lights but when i check below, all the switches are off. Puzzled, I walk to the stern and realise that the lights are in fact caused by luminesence streaming off the keel and the rudder forming a river of light behind us, fifty metres long, waving thought the dark sea like a magical serpents tail.

As we approach the equator the sun comes up with ten knots of wind from the south-east. We set our big orange spinnaker and slide across the flat ocean at 7 knots with an extra knot gifted to us by the south pacific current that is carrying us obligingly towards our destination. We have had pizza for lunch and now the air is hot and heavy over the boat, an occasional rustle from the spinnaker the only sound above the gentle lapping of the waves on the hull.    We expect to cross the equator at midnight tonight, a milestone not to miss.


  1. Wonderful blog, Frewy. Poor Fats - sounds horrid, but I guess she's up and running now.
    Great to hear the Doldrums really are!
    Pip pip

  2. Can picture every brilliantly described scene ! Enjoy crossing the Equator ! Get better quickly Caroline & much love to all, Katie xoxox

  3. Have been following your progress with interest and it's improving my geography no end! Great photos too. The office a distant memory now P? Love to all. Claire xx

  4. Hi Bertie,

    It is great to see that you have made such progress since I last logged in ...................... except for the beard which ages you somewhat ...... who cares Jeannette is on the way and am sure things will change !!!!!