Pacific Crossing Part 2: Maupiti to Cairns.

Sailing out of Maupiti.

We set sail from Maupiti, French Polynesia on Monday 28 th June 2021, to sail directly to Cairns, Australia. We had almost three months in this lovely Pacific nation which gave us the opportunity to explore all the major places. Some cruisers hang around here much longer, because they love the culture, or, because of Covid-19, they cannot continue west to the other Pacific nations. These boats sail up and down French Polynesia like the mythical Flying Dutchman. Australia and New Zealand are also closed to international sailors and only allow their citizens back.

Our last view of land for 28 days.

In a previous post I referred to some problems with officialdom and now that we have left French Polynesia, we can tell you more about this: Despite us hoping to spend a year cruising the numerous Pacific Islands, between Panama and Australia, only French Polynesia and Fiji were open in terms of Covid-19 protocols. Back in December 2020, Annie submitted an application to the French Polynesian authorities for a standard 3 month visa to cruise these islands. By the end of January 2021 she had not had a reply, despite cruising friends who had applied during January, receiving their approvals.

She again emailed them for the visa, but some official had filed and forgotten our application. In the first week of February a new case of Covid had arrived in FP by plane from the USA, so the authorities immediately closed the FP borders. On further enquiry from Annie we were advised that our application to enter FP had been refused. We now had to leave Panama for Australia, facing a hell of a long passage going home, with nowhere to stop but in Fiji!

Annie contacted an agent in Nuku Hiva, FP who said: “For US150 I will sort this out”. A week later we were advised that we could enter FP for 4 days to rest and replenish our water, fuel and provisions! Arriving in Nuku Hiva, the agent took us to the Gendarmerie to have our passports stamped and other French documents signed. It turns out the Gendarmerie passport stamp is valid for the standard 90 day stay in FP.

In five years of cruising, we found that the more layers of bureaucracy (and the French have many), the easier it is to find a solution to these ad hoc bureaucratic decisions. There is a vast difference between arrivals by plane from Covid hotspots and sailors who are effectively in quarantine for 27 days, sailing from Panama to FP, without a living soul in sight.

After four days, we set sail for the Tuamotus. Bad luck provided the solution, when a stay in Esprit’s mast rigging started unwinding. We were now forced to stop in Tahiti for repairs and time marched on – four days turned into four weeks. Not a sign of patrol boats or officials – only friendly locals happy to welcome us. We kept a low profile and had the balance of our 90 day visas to see the rest of the Society Islands, which was a wonderful experience.

Esprit’s track from Maupiti to Cairns.

Now, we are back to take two: Pacific crossing from Maupiti, FP to Cairns, Straya. As the crow flies, it is 3,600 nm (6,667 km) for this leg, but in reality it will be longer, as the boat sails. For example, in take one: Panama to Nuku Hiva, FP is 3,800 nm (7,038 km) as the crow flies, but as the boat sails, it was 4,028 nm (7,460 km).

Bob in Auckland advises us that this leg of the Pacific crossing may be more challenging due to the shifting SPCZ (South Pacific Convergence Zone). Also, as a result of high westerlies down in the roaring forties, a huge low (no wind) has settled below Samoa, directly on our route to Cairns. He suggests we take a northerly route above Samoa to avoid the low.

Low, south of Samoa.

This will be longer, but at least we won’t have to motor (or so we thought). To summarise: Days 1 to 5, we have wind from the North-east, but, with lots of wind and rain squalls and lightning around us. We know that lightning is not our friend, as one lightning strike to a yacht mast can toast the electronics. At the moment, there isn’t another yacht mast for hundreds of miles around us.

The clouds marching by.

The weather gods have also decided they will only send these squalls at night, as it delivers amusing mayhem, with lots of shouty shouties (to quote circumnavigators Wayne and Barry on SV Nauty Buoy). Say no more. Despite this, we clock up 710 nm, average 142 nm/day for the 5 days. Once we reach latitude 12 south, the rain abates and we continue west slowly from day 6, due to light winds. We started motoring on Sunday arvo day 6, as the low has now moved further north into our intended route. We take the sails down as they are slapping uselessly in the little wind that there is.

Sun rising in the east.

We end up motoring for 40 hours until Tuesday the 6 th July (Day 8), burning 80 litres of diesel. At 07:00 on day 8, a light 10 knot S-E kicks in, we hoist the sails and cut the engine – hallelujah! We are now directly north of American Samoa and the American navy and air force spot us on AIS. We get visited by both a warship and a plane, not once, but two days in a row – good on them!

Samoa with wind to the south, but zilch where we are.

We re-set our course to the south-west to head for the French Islands of Wallis and Futuna, 510 nm away. Short lived excitement – we sail for 95 nm and then have to motor again for 21 hours. Getting a bit worried about our diesel.

On Day 11 we get into the easterly wind and set the pole up to run downwind. With winds between 18 – 24 knots, we are flying with 3 reefs in the main and 30% of the jib. We sail 164 nm in the next 24 hours and pass Wallis Island.

At 03:00 am on Day 13, we cross the International Dateline at 180 degrees of longitude and miss one day as we sail into the Eastern longitudes. At 07:00  a 40 knot rainstorm hits us for an hour and everything on the boat is wet. We have 1,954 nm to go to Cairns. Days 14 to 17 have repetitive 18 – 22 knot SE winds with very unsettled 3 – 4 m seas and occasional rain squalls.

Vanuatu (previously New Hebrides) is ahead of us and on Day 18 we round this large group of islands to the North. We drop the sails behind the small uninhabited cluster of Rowa Islands for an hour, to run our water maker and fill the aft tank. The Coral Sea is ahead and we set our final course to Grafton Passage in the Great Barrier Reef and on to Cairns – still 1,150nm away.

The weather around Vanuatu.

The wind, rain and wave conditions are variable over the next 5 days, as we slowly reduced the distance to the North Queensland coast. At longitude 163E we encountered a squall line which stuffed us around and had us on our toes for 12 hours.

The bird life out at sea is fascinating – from big gulls to small pigeon sized birds, they manage to survive miles from nowhere, on what they can get from the waves. The night of Day 23 saw 7 blue face boobies settle on our solar panels for a rest and a free ride. I only discover them at 06:00 in the morning and managed to chase them away. They left a huge mess which took me nearly an hour to scrub off, so that we can harvest solar power again.

Day 28: Our last sunrise on this crossing.

Waypoint 2 came up outside the Great Barrier Reef on Day 28, Tuesday 27 July at 10:00 and from here we motored through the Grafton Passage in the reef for the long dredged approach channel into Cairns.

Approaching Cairns – Annie getting the fenders ready.

April 2017: Dirk’s 70th at the Prawn Star, just before we left Cairns on this trip.

We tied up at Cairns Marlin Marina on Tuesday the 27 July 2021 at 15:00, to complete our circumnavigation of the world – 5 years and 2 months since departing Sydney in 2016, having sailed 37,321 nautical miles x 1.852 = 69,118 km.

Esprit’s route around the world.

It may now be appropriate to quote the Chuck Berry song: “C’est la vie said the old folks, because you know, you never can tell”

Our second leg across the Pacific from Maupiti in French Polynesia to Cairns in Australia took us 28 days over a distance of 3,874 nm, (7,175 km), and was more difficult than the first leg from Panama to the Marquesas. You may ask why we made our landfall in Cairns instead of Brisbane which is a shorter distance? As we can’t visit the other Pacific nations due to Covid-19, we decided to again cruise in the Whitsunday Islands off northern Queensland and slowly make our way back to Sydney for the rest of the year.

The complete Pacific crossing.

Most importantly, The SICYC (Shag Island Cruising Yacht Club) annual rendezvous is on again at Gloucester Passage north of the Whitsundays, from the 26 to the 29 August 2021. This is party central for yachties, which we enjoyed 5 years ago. We made a lot of new friends then, who we hope to catch up with again. Watch our blog!

SICYC Rendezvous 2016.

Annie enjoying the SICYC Pirates party.

But first, we have to spend 14 days in quarantine in the Pacific hotel in Cairns at a cost of $4,130 for the two of us and leave our boat in the Marlin marina for that period at a cost of $1,895. A nice welcome home for Aussies due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least we could come back, as other nationalities can’t get in.

Cairns – view from our hotel room.

We will keep you posted on Australia’s beautiful east coast as we sail back to Sydney, so stay with us. Cheers for now!

Annie and Dirk.

French Polynesia: Bora Bora & Maupiti

Bora Bora island.

Approaching Bora Bora

We arrived in Bora Bora around 5pm on the 19 th June 2021 after a pleasant sail from Tahaa Island. We picked up a mooring next to Andrew and Carolyn on Askari and joined them for drinks aboard. The next day wet tied up our dinghy at the Bora Bora Yacht Club and walked the 2km to Vaitape, the main town on the island. Being a Sunday, the town was quiet, so we walked back to BBYC for happy hour  at the club.

On Monday morning Annie cycled back into town to start the check out process at the Gendarmerie and was told our zarpe document will be ready by Wednesday morning. Bob McDavitt our weather router, indicated that a low over Maupiti will delay our departure until the next Monday. The upmarket timber and grass roofed bungalows had us gawking.

Blue water and pools above it!

Bungalows on the water

The reefs don’t allow a passage around the south of the island, so we sailed down the west side of the island, picking up a mooring and visiting the famous Bloody Mary’s bar and restaurant, dating back to the 1950’s. There are numerous rolls of names at the entrance to the restaurant of the rich and famous who had been to Bloody Mary’s.

Bloody Mary’s jetty.

Roll call of the rich and famous.

On the Thursday we took the dinghy in to Vaitape to complete our check out. We also bought last minute provisions for the trip to Cairns, Australia. The documents hadn’t come through from Tahiti yet, so we anchored in a lovely spot behind Motu Toopua for another night.

Fruit and veg from sidewalk stall.

How to recycle tyres

Proud gardeners

Farmer’s market

Background music.

Friday morning proved successful at the Gendarmerie and we were issued with our exit papers and our passports were stamped. We set sail for Maupiti at 10:00 in a 15 knot NE wind and 1m sea. Arriving at the Onoiau pass, Maupiti at 14:30, we were confronted  with big breaking waves on both sides of the narrow pass. The water was like a washing machine and we had to gun the motor flatout to make 2 knots through the fast out flowing current.

Leaving Bora Bora.

Approaching the pass

Where do we go in?

Maupiti.

Once inside the lagoon the water was flat and we motored up the channel to anchor close to three other boats. We had Andrew and Carolyn Bellamy from Fremantle, on Askari over for drinks. Saturday morning, we walked through the village of Vaiea to a row of low key eateries next to the sports field, where we enjoyed coffees and excellent chocolate cake.

Anchored in Maupiti

Coffee and cake queen

Chewing the fat with Andrew and Carolyn.

Sunday was a big day for Maupiti – the FP government had a new ship built in Spain to service the Society Islands as a freighter and ferry – a real lifeline for Maupiti to the rest of the islands. The celebrations started with music and dancing as soon as the ship entered the pass at 08:00. Everybody was dressed up and the welcoming committee stood ready with flower garlands for all the tourists that got off the ship. Really moving to see this event.

The new ship approaching

The music section.

Welcoming with flowers.

Ship docking

After the welcoming, Annie and I decided to climb the mountain above Vaiea to see the island from the highest point. A tough climb but very rewarding in terms of the view. We got back on board for cold beers and had a swim. The water maker was started and we filled the water tanks for the trip home.

At the top

Cairns is over the horizon.

Afterwards we went ashore to donate all our surplus clothes and linen, kitchenware, books etc. to the islanders, who are doing it tough due to the downturn in tourism. We had farewell drinks on Askari and to post this blog. Wish us luck as we do another long leg to finish our circumnavigation. We should arrive in Cairns in 3-4 weeks and as before, you will be able to follow us on our Predictwind tracking page. Cheers for now!

French Polynesia: Raiatea and Tahaa Islands

Raiatea and Tahaa Islands are two separate islands, surrounded by vast coral reefs. We arrived here on the 9th June and after entering the lagoon through a northeast pass off Tahaa, we motored into a few bays in Tahaa to find that the bays are all exceptionally deep. We decided to head for Raiatea a short distance away, to look for shallower water, which we found off the Carenage on the north west corner of the island.

Raiatea & Tahaa.

Raiatea is home to three large charter fleets of mostly catamarans of the Sunsail, Moorings and Dream Charter companies. They occupy all the marinas and the surrounding anchorages, forcing us cruisers to anchor further out. Due to Covid-19 their boats are largely unused at the moment.

Anchored outside the Carenage – our neighbour aptly named “Patchwork”

We were anchored just outside the Raiatea Carenage which is the oldest and shabbiest marina on the island. We dropped our big gas cylinder for a refill and took our bikes ashore for the 5 km trip into Uturoa, the main town. We had a successful morning by getting Covid-19 vaccinations. We opted for the Janssen single shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, rather than the Pfizer two shot option, which would tie us down here for three weeks.

Raiatea hospital where we got vaccinated.

We also established from the national police that checking out and getting the all important exit papers for the boat (zarpe) would take two days. Not wanting to brave the traffic and cycle to and fro, we motored Esprit to Uturoa and tied up at the wharf behind the Shell service station. Annie stocked up with food at a brand new Super U supermarket in Uturoa. She also found Nicola, a French Canadian who was happy to do our laundry in his washing machine on board his boat for a small fee – amazing.

I like the simplicity of the churches

On the 15th June we set off to sail around Raiatea Island, but the weather was a bit ordinary with rain squalls every now and then. Unusual, the locals told us, as we were now supposed to be in the dry season. Our route down the West coast took us outside the reef for a few miles, as the inside passage was too shallow for our 2.2 m draft. The first night we tied up to a buoy in Tuatau bay, where we sheltered from the easterly wind in a lovely setting.

The rugged West coast of Raiatea.

Our anchorage at Tuatau.

Motoring up the Southeast coast.

The next day was a wet affair with rain squalls and narrow passages between the island and the reef on the South eastern side of the island. We picked up another buoy in Opoa bay as the sun was coming out and went ashore to visit a UNESCO world heritage site called Taputapuatea. This archaeological site is at the heart of the Polynesian cultural landscape. Inhabited by the ancient Ma’ohi civilisation, it is believed to be the last region to have been settled by human societies in 1000 AD. I have now seen enough Marae old stones.

Anchorage at Opoa Bay.

The ancient site layout.

Old stones 1.

Old stones 2.

Old stones 3.

Where the hell are the buildings?

Our third night was in the lee of a small island Tipaemau, in the entrance of the Iriru pass on the East coast, where we met up with Neill and Heidi on Artemis. They invited us over for a fabulous lasagne dinner and dessert.

Anchored off Islet Tipaemau.

Heidi & Neill with their tasty lasagna.

We left early the following morning as a big squall from the East was heading our way. We outran it, motoring north to Uturoa where we tied up at the Total wharf to fuel up for our second Pacific crossing to Australia. We took on 325 l of diesel in the main tank and back up jerry cans and 30 l of petrol.

Squall from the East.

Then we sailed up to the North coast of Tahaa to visit the coral gardens off the Tautau and Maharare Islands and did a snorkel in the afternoon. The coral was average, as some green weed had started growing on it, but there were plenty of colourful reef fish.

The hamlet of Tiva on the West coast of Tahaa.

Anchored off the coral gardens.

The holiday resort next to the gardens.

Annie going for a snorkel sticky beak.

We were all set to leave this anchorage to sail to Bora Bora the next morning, but a huge northerly weather system set in with a deluge of rain lasting from 7:30 until 12:30. We motored down to the Paipai pass to exit the lagoon and set sail for Bora Bora at 1 pm. Next report from Bora  Bora.

Esprit’s route.

French Polynesia: Huahine Island.

On Monday morning 31st May, we anchored at Fare village on Huahine Nui Island, 90 nm northwest from Moorea. Picture pretty, but without the dramatic mountains of Moorea. Huahine is known for the vanilla bean pods it produces and visiting a vanilla farm, plus cycling around the island was on our to do list.

Huahine Nui and Iti islands.

A model showing the topography with the surrounding reefs.

But first I had to research the Covid-19 entry protocols for ports of entry into Australia, as we had given up on Fiji. The latter would have cost us over $2,600 in tests and entry costs into Fiji and limit us to disembarking at only one of the 300 islands of Fiji. Both New South Wales and Queensland on the Australian eastern seaboard, have compulsory 14 day quarantine in place for international arrivals. The cost of quarantine in an approved hotel plus the cost of leaving our boat in a marina, to be paid by us, is around $4,000.

Happy hour at the Huahine Yacht Club.

Having registered our sailing plan from FP to Cairns in QLD with the Australian Border Force, we set about enjoying Huahine, which consists of two islands joined by a bridge, Nui (big island) and Iti (small island). We cycled the 23 km route around Nui visiting the original settlement of Fare Pote’e near Maeva on the north-east corner of the island.

The locals are proud of their sidewalks.

Fare Pote’e museum.

Inside the more than 200 year old museum.

The little daughter of the supervisor, showing Annie the fish.

This was the original capital in ancient times. There is an interesting legend of the Princess Hotu Hiva who escaped an arranged marriage on the nearby island of Raiatea by hiding in a barrel and floating across to Huahine.

The legend of Hotu Hiva – click to enlarge.

Hotu Hiva arrives by barrel.

The spot where she reputedly landed.

There are numerous Maraes (sacred sites) here and the original fish traps of the ancients in the river –  still in use today. We also stopped at a stream which teemed with 2-3m long eels. The hills from Faie to the Bay of Maroe were quite steep, so we had to push the bikes.

A nearby Marae.

Ancient fish traps.

Public toilets near the sites – note the timber shingles and woven palm frond walls.

Push Annie, push!

At the top – totes sweaty.

We met Daniel from Berlin at the Huahine Yacht Club, who told us about Avea Bay at the southern tip of Iti, the small island. The next day I met four lovely ladies having lunch at the yacht club, wearing their traditional Tahitian flower crowns called “Hei Upo’o” which are worn to celebrate the beauty of everyday life in these islands of paradise. The embodiment of “The Happy Life”

Lovely ladies at the yacht club.

Tara, one of the ladies has a restaurant “Chez Tara” at Avea Bay and she invited us to lunch on the Sunday. We motored the 8 nm down some narrow channels to Avea Bay on the Friday, which has the clearest water we have seen – anchored in 10 metres depth, we could see every link of the anchor chain on the white sand. It was a 50m swim to the kilometre wide reef, only 1.5m deep.

Esprit anchored in the clear blue water.

A traditional house boat anchored near to us.

Me, celebrating the achievement of having swum the 50m to the reef and back.

On Saturday we cycled the 16km up the east coast to Tehoro in the north and back, followed by a short 10hm cycle up the west coast to Ha’apu Bay and back on Sunday morning, finding the vanilla farm closed. Spruced up after a swim and a beer on the reef, we settled down at Chez Tara at 12:00 for lunch.

Time to assemble the bikes again.

So that Ms Armstrong can take off again.

Palm trees along the road.

Bananas growing wild along the road.

So, this is how they keep the verges trimmed.

Some parts of the island have been inundated by these creepers taking over the trees.

A pity the vanilla farm was closed on a Sunday – we will try another farm on Tahaa island.

Marea near Avea Bay – how did the ancients move these stones?

At the top of a hill – no Sweaty Betty, this one.

Back at Avea Bay before lunch.

We were welcomed like old friends with hugs and Annie was presented with a fresh “Hei Upo’o” and a bunch of bananas, as I had mentioned earlier she wanted to bake a banana bread. The freshly grilled Mahi Mahi fish, chips and salads washed down with the local beer, went down a treat, resulting in a long Sunday afternoon Nanna nap.

Two lovely ladies.

Well fed and lubricated.

I begged Annie to take off her “Hei Opo’ou before she went to bed.

On the Monday we motored back to Fare in the rain, anchored and at 5pm joined a bunch of German, Dutch, Swedish and British sailors for a convivial happy hour, half price, drinks session at the yacht club. Tuesday was perfect for recovery as it was raining most of the day.

Next stop Raiatea island.

Wednesday morning the 9th June, we set sail for the short 22 nm sail to Raiatea and Tahaa Islands.

Cheers for now!

French Polynesia: Tahiti and Moorea.

Approaching Tahiti.

It was a slow passage in light winds from Fakarava to Tahiti, where we arrived after 48 hrs and 250 nm (motor sailing for 24 hrs), in the southern anchorage of Phaeton Harbour. We arrived on the 28 th April 2021, which was my 74th birthday, so celebrations that evening were in order. To misquote the Beatles to Annie: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 84?”

Esprit’s route to Tahiti (click to enlarge)

Sailing up the rugged west coast of Tahiti.

Entering Phaeton Harbour with its extensive oyster farms.

A sight to warm the heart – kids sailing their Optimist dinghies.

Polynesian house boat anchored next to us.

There were no riggers at the shipyard in this port, so after shopping at the Carrefour supermarket and buying a new SIM card, we headed for Papeete on the 30th, motor sailing the 38 nm. Neither of the two marinas had a berth for us, but Port Control gave us clearance to enter the harbour and cross the airport runway approach, to anchor outside the runway, but inside the fringing reef. There were quite a number of boats at anchor, including two Aussie boats, who came over to welcome us.

From a poster: we were anchored inside the reef, just to the right of the speedboat. Moorea in the background.

View from our anchorage to the airport.

That evening, we had sundowners until late on Esprit, with some British and Scottish cruisers, getting all the inside info on Tahiti. Including possibly free Pfizer Covid vaccinations at the town hall – we were there first thing Monday morning. The doctor on duty wouldn’t vaccinate us without residence permits, so we tried other vaccination centres on the Tuesday and Wednesday with the same result – clearly we missed the bus!

Papeete Marina.

Papeete ferry terminal.

Fiji is of course keen for us to visit, but require PCR tests in Tahiti before we leave at AUD 295 a pop (a growth industry) with another PCR test on arrival in Fiji at AUD 205 (despite a 14 day passage). The Covid vaccinations wouldn’t change this rule, so we decided to ignore the possible vaccinations and enjoy the Society Islands.

Coffee shop over the water on the foreshore.

The cute rear view of a tiki.

Nuclear testing memorial site, with beautiful carvings.

Very sad, the way these friendly and peaceful people were treated.

On Friday 7 th May Jonathan from Mat Rigging and his offsider Juan, came on board to install the two new inner shrouds they had fabricated and to tune our rigging – only a week after we had arrived. We were told that to get a measure, quote and fabrication done in a week, is nigh impossible in Tahiti.

Juan and Jonathan the riggers.

Fine tuning the tension of the stays.

A restaurant on the Faa beachfront.

The timber carvings are intricate.

The colonial De Ville hotel.

From the home front: Our daughter Michelle had been evacuated from Port Moresby in PNG by the UN two weeks earlier, due to fighting between the mountain tribes and a massive outbreak of Covid. She had been released from 14 days of quarantine in Brisbane – just in time for her 31st birthday on the 8 th May, which she celebrated with friends in Sydney. Karen and her boyfriend Evan, celebrated his masters degree in Occupational Therapy from Sydney Uni a week earlier, by both doing a triathlon in Byron Bay on the 8th.

Michelle in PNG.

Evan’s mum Vicky, Evan and Karen.

The triathlon team.

On the 9th May we lifted anchor and crossed the 15 nm to Moorea Island to the west of Tahiti. We enjoyed the 10 days we had in Tahiti, having had all the maintenance items on the boat done, seen all the sights and having met some of the friendly locals. After the hustle and bustle of Tahiti, Moorea is even more relaxed and easy going. Two great bays, Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay, cut deep into the North coast and provide secure anchorages.

Leaving Tahiti.

Heading to Moorea.

Our first anchorage was in Cook’s Bay at Pao Pao, at the top of the bay, where there is also a Super U supermarket. We used our bikes to explore the coastal road along the eastern and western sides of the bay. The road took as through lush vegetation and dramatic mountain backdrops, passing the famous Bali Hai hotel featured in old movies and books.

Sailing into Cook’s Bay.

View from our anchorage.

Cycling around Cook’s Bay.

Good stone packing.

Bali Hai resort.

The Maitre’D at the coffee shop.

After seven glorious days, we motored the 5 nm to Opunohu Bay where we anchored at the mouth of the bay with 18 other yachts in crystal clear water. An even prettier bay than Cook’s Bay, even though this seemed impossible!

Approaching Opunohu Bay anchorage.

The beach and park next to us.

On Saturday the 15th May 2021 we reached a milestone. It was five years ago, when we set sail from Sydney for the Whitsunday Islands in North Queensland and to ease into retirement – having stopped work two days before! The plan was to cruise the Whitsundays and maybe go north as far as the Louisiades Islands, east of Papua New Guinea.

In the back of our minds was a possible circumnavigation of the world, but we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves and broadcast goals that we couldn’t achieve. We had to first test ourselves and the new boat in longer distance sailing, to see if this was doable. After three months cruising in the beautiful Louisiades Islands and getting used to not working anymore (honestly!), we headed for Darwin in Northern Australia, sorting out a few teething problems on the way. We also had to add additional equipment to the boat for a safe circumnavigation. Most of this we installed by the time we reached Thailand. Our confidence grew as the miles slipped by under Esprit’s keel and the rest is now history. We have had five years of great experiences and seen interesting places!

Sunset from our anchorage on the 15th May 2021.

In Opunohu Bay we enjoyed beautiful sunsets and drinks on the beach next to our anchorage with other yachties from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. We ended up spending two weeks here, as there were so many hikes, cycling, snorkelling and social opportunities for us.

Sundowners with the Canadians.

More sundowners!

The first Protestant church built in Polynesia in 1813, by the London Missionary Society.

Annie loves the local grapefruit.

Our first hike was up Magic Mountain across the bay, which afforded a sweeping view of the reefs and surrounding mountains. Arriving breathless at the summit we were surprised to see three young Polynesians running up the mountain for their daily exercise.

Esprit with Magic Mountain in the background.

The start of the Magic Mountain hike.

Halfway up I’m getting a bit sweaty.

View from the top towards the surrounding reef.

View across the bay to our anchorage.

One of the Polynesians who ran up to the top.

The next day we cycled the 15 km around the bay from the Hilton hotel in the East, to the village in the West and back.

Going ashore to go cycling.

The Hilton hotel bungalows.

The roads and sidewalks are well maintained.

Esprit from the shore.

In between the fun things, I managed to service the two halyard winches and the anchor winch, fill the tanks with the water maker, replace the port and starboard navigation lights and after a lot of choice words, replace the engine’s main drive belt (fan belt in the old days, but this one has no fan).

View halfway up Mount Rotui – note the pass through the reef.

After a three hour attempt to climb to the Mount Rotui lookout behind the park, we returned defeated, as the path was very steep and totally overgrown due to a downturn in hikers. On the descent I also managed to slip and fall down a 2m ledge, rolling arse over tit downhill for another 10m before a tree stopped me. Scratched and bloodied, it was only my ego that was injured.

View down to the Hilton bungalows.

Knackered!

The beach and park next to the anchorage was the venue for the finish of a marathon and triathlon on the 23rd May, creating quite a festive atmosphere with hundreds of competitors and spectators.

Approaching the triathlon finish.

Finish line ahead.

Two Polynesian triathletes.

Cooling off on the beach.

Next, we dinghied to the top of Opunohu Bay to do the Three Pines hike up the Opunohu Valley – a spectacular nature reserve with numerous hikes from 3 km to 20 km in length. There is a veritable Flying Fox (Zip-line) feast for younger folks in the pine forest halfway up the mountain. I counted 23 cable runs with people zipping through the treetops.

Annie with a map of the hiking trails.

Walking up the valley – note the Pierneef trees.

Zipliners being instructed on how to hook up to the cables.

Flying through the treetops.

The next day Annie, Neill, Heidi and Jorg tackled a longer hike to the summit of the Belvedere lookout with views over both Cook’s and Opunohu Bays. I sat this one out as my knee was playing up after my fall, but they had a great 5 hour hike up to the Belvedere lookout.

Neill, Annie, Heidi and Jorg on their way to their hike.

The new science centre at the start of the valley.

Hiking up to Belvedere

Visiting ancient Polynesian sacred sites (Marae).

Jorg and Annie at the biggest tree on Moorea.

Neill, Jorg and Heidi on top of the Belvedere lookout.

View to Opunohu Bay at left, Rotui Mountain (our Nemesis) and Cook’s Bay on the right.

There were more hikes and dinner parties before we set sail for Fare on Huahine Island on the 30th May, when a favourable wind came through for the 90 nm overnight passage. We plan to visit Raiatea, Bora Bora and Maupiti Islands before we leave French Polynesia.

Another day, another hike – which way now Neill?

Muddy going.

Back in the valley, going home.

After visiting the rest of the Society Islands, we may have to sail back to Australia as Covid-19 is playing havoc with our plans. We have approval to visit Fiji, but an increase in infections had them close their borders this week. None of the other Pacific nations are open at present. At least Australia accepts its citizens, subject to a PCR test and 14 days quarantine in a hotel. We may be back in Oz earlier than expected!

Cheers, Dirk and Annie.

French Polynesia: A small sample of the Marquesas and the Tuamotos.

French Polynesia is the remote hub of the South Pacific, comprising the four island groups of the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Society and Austral Islands. Most sailors crossing the Pacific from Panama and North or South America make their landfall in the Marquesas, the most north easterly territory of French Polynesia. It consists of six large and six small mountainous islands, cut into deep fertile valleys, but not protected by coral barrier reefs.

Note: click on images to enlarge.

French Polynesia

Before the Covid pandemic, sailors would make their landfall in the southern islands of Fatu Hiva or Hiva Oa and then cruise downwind to Nuku Hiva, the main administrative island. Due to much reduced traffic, entry is now restricted to Nuku Hiva, where we made our landfall. Hiva Oa would have been our preference, as we would have liked to visit the Calvary cemetery and grave of Paul Gauguin, the French impressionist painter and wastrel, as well as the grave of Jacques Brel, the famous Belgian singer.

Sailing in to Nuku Hiva.

Arriving in the Marquesas is a celebratory time, tempered by the need to scrape off a significant harvest of gooseneck barnacles covering the hull and cleaning off a strange yellow-brown sludge above the waterline, despite the clear water we had sailed through.

Out with the bubbly.

The day after our arrival was our wedding anniversary, which we celebrated at the only restaurant in town. On the Monday we checked in with the Gendarmerie and restocked some essential items before exploring the town.

Wedding anniversary dinner.

Traditional Polynesian grass roofed buildings.

Modern bank building – a roof extravaganza.

The Polynesians are keen stone and lava carvers.

Also wood carvers.

The French Governor’s offices.

The village from the Tiki sculpture hill.

The 12 m high sculpture: From the Woman Tiki, the warden of knowledge and tradition, steps the warrior.

You don’t need a flash boat to cross the Pacific!

The anchorage was very rolly and after five days, we had enough of this motion, lifted the anchor and set sail for the Tuamotus. It would be a 540 nm, four day sail south west to this archipelago. On day 2 whilst having sundowners, we had a surprise at sunset when we noticed that the port side shroud cable (attached halfway up the mast, to support the port side mainstay cable), was starting to part ways with the swaged bottle screw on the deck. Two strands of the cable had already started to unwind.

The shroud is the right hand cable.

I quickly put a hose clamp around the cable to stop further unwinding and Annie went up in the bosun’s chair to lash a rope around the top attachment point at the spreaders. This we tightened back to the bottle screw base to support the shroud cable, should it part ways. With reduced sail, we slowly carried on to the Tuamotus. On reaching Tahiti, we will have to replace the shroud and have all the rigging checked. My guess is that more than 6 weeks of sailing on port tack, has put that side of the rig to the test.

Our temporary support for the shroud cable.

The Tuamotus, comprises 76 island atolls and innumerable coral reefs, spanning a distance of a 1000 miles. Each atoll is a ring of coral, topped with occasional motus (sandy islets) surrounding a lagoon. Some atolls have passages through the fringing coral reefs, allowing entry by boat into the lagoons. Only 30 atolls are uninhabited, the other 46 support small populations, limited by food, water and space.

The northern part of the Tuamotos.

People subsist on a coconut and fish economy. The coconuts grow with little assistance on all the motus and the ripe nuts are used for copra production, used for making coconut oil. Black pearl cultivation has become a major industry. The French nuclear testing in these atolls, of 175 atmospheric and underground tests, finally came to an end in 1996, defying a worldwide moratorium on nuclear testing and creating much ill-will for France and stifling local tourism in French Polynesia.

Sailing past our first Tuamoto atoll.

We aimed for the atoll of Apataki for our first stop, as arriving when the sun is high to see the reefs, as well as the correct tide timing through the passes is important – the outgoing tide, can run up to 10 knots out of some passes. After exactly four days and 566 nm, we anchored inside the Apataki lagoon at 11:00. Quite a pretty spot, but the problem was, the prevailing easterly wind had a substantial fetch across the lagoon, leaving us bouncing on a lee shore.

Entering Apataki atoll through the pass.

Entering the lagoon after the pass.

The water gets very choppy on this lee shore, off the village.

We therefore left at 7:30 the next morning, to motor sail the 20 nm into the easterly wind, to the north of the next island called Toau. Typical of the Tuamotos, the rain squalls form and move quickly – we were hit by three big squalls during the 20 nm passage. However, north Toau is paradise – a perfectly sheltered bay in crystal clear water, so blue it makes your eyes hurt.

Entering the anchorage of Toau – this has not been Photoshopped!

A friendly Polynesian couple Gaston and Valentine, live on this motu called Matarina. We paid $5/night to tie up on one of their moorings and stayed for two nights. I took the opportunity on the flat water, to strip the two primary winches, clean and service them, as they were starting to labour because of salt build-up. We walked around the motu to explore this unique environment  with Gaston and Valentine’s three dogs leading us enthusiastically.

Gaston & Valentine’s jetty and outdoor kitchen/cafe.

The winches were in need of some cleaning.

Annie with the boats in the background.

Fakarava, our next atoll destination to the south-east, took a whole day of motor sailing to reach. Only 49 nm away, we seemed to be caught in a revolving squall which drenched us five times from all directions. Entering the lagoon pass was also exciting, steering between huge overfall breakers against the outgoing tide and the starboard marker on the coral reef. Once through, it was still 5 nm to the Rotoava anchorage in the north-east corner of this large atoll.

Rotoava village from the anchorage.

Rotoava village is quite beautiful and would qualify for a tidy town award in Australia. The locals are proud of their tropical gardens and very friendly to visitors. The Polynesian people are attractive and tall, but western food has bulked some of them up substantially. The town has two schools, a police station, with no policemen, a post office and supermarket. There were about 20 yachts anchored in the crystal clear bay. Snorkelling was good over the coral reefs, supervised by three very large and tame greenback turtles.

The Post Office had the only ViniSpot (our data card hotspot) in town, so we did all our calls and emails from here.

The Polynesians are passionate about their rowing.

The quaint local church.

 

Annie walked the 5 km to this tower near the airport. It appears to have been a lighthouse.

We ended up spending four days in this paradise, as the Predictwind forecast indicated hardly any wind to sail the 250 nm to Tahiti – a two day  passage. On Monday the 26 th April we filled the boat tank up with diesel and set off at 5 pm, hoping to do more sailing than motoring to Tahiti. Our next post will inform you about the Society Islands – stay tuned.

Please note: You may well ask why we are visiting so few of the islands in this paradise? It is complicated and all will be revealed in our next post when we leave French Polynesia. In the meantime, cheers for now!

Pacific Crossing: Las Perlas to Marquesas Islands.

Note: Click on any image to enlarge.

Distances to the Marquesas as the crow flies. In practice, distances are greater.

Prevailing wind systems for this crossing.

We set sail from Isla de Rey at 9:00 on Saturday the 13th March 2021. Just offshore, we had a farewell from a huge pod of dolphins, swimming with us for an hour. It was a clear sunny day with a 10kn N-W wind and flat seas, allowing us to pole out the jib, covering 165 nm in the next 24 hours.

Here we go, bright eyed and bushy tailed.

By midday we reached the main shipping lanes to the Panama canal, staying just outside the northbound lane. We passed 23 ships by midnight, when the shipping lanes turned west up to the USA and south to Ecuador and Chile.

Pelicans having a fish feast as we leave the Las Perlas behind.

Jib poled out with flat seas.

The next day was the polar opposite when a huge sea built up, possibly due to a counter current coming up the West coast of South America, fighting with the strong NE wind. By 10:00 we were down to two reefs in the main and a furled jib. But by 19:00 the evening, the wind died completely, forcing us to motor for seven hours, before a SE wind slowly picked up. Bob McDavitt, our new weather router in Auckland NZ, amended our waypoint, which was to pass the Galapagos Islands to the South, to a new waypoint north of the Galapagos Islands. This allowed us to keep sailing in this contrary wind.

Seas building.

Pacific Ocean currents.

North Pacific wind zones.

Day 3 started with flat seas and a light SE wind, which allowed Annie to squeeze into the tight rear lazarette locker to tighten the lower mounting bracket bolts on the Hydrovane – the bracket showed signs of lateral movement. Following the Hydrovane upper bracket drama between the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands, we were keen to fix this, as soon as the movement was spotted during my early morning watch.

Day 3: flatter seas.

We decided on six hour watches: Annie 6 am – 12 pm, Dirk 12 pm – 6 pm, Annie 6 pm – 12 pm and Dirk midnight – 6 am. By the third day we had settled into this routine and were able to sleep at night when not on watch. I liked the late night watch as I enjoyed the spectacular sunrises we often had. The day watches were less structured, as it was difficult to sleep and there was always something to do, or to read.

Dinghy securely tied up on the foredeck.

From days 3 to 6, the wind was variable from the SE (we often motored), but with a good 2.5 to 3 kn current running with us. We were looking forward to get to the equator to enjoy the benefits of the stronger west flowing equatorial current and the stronger prevailing SE winds at that latitude.

Day 5: Sunrise.

On day 5 we reset our course to a new waypoint 3, at 2 deg south and about 700 nm away, which Bob had texted us, suggesting better wind south of the equator. We passed the Galapagos Islands to the North on day 6, having sailed 915 nm, since leaving the Las Perlas Islands.

Day 6: Sunset.

We crossed the equator going south on Day 7, the 20 th March 2021. The first time since crossing the equator going north, between Sumatra and Borneo on the 17 th October 2017, three and a half years ago – how the time flies! We had a a party on Esprit that evening, anchored off Kentar Island, in the company of Jon and Sue on Ocelot from the USA, Mick and Brenda from Australia on Grand Cru and Colin and Thant Zhin from the UK on Burmese Breeze – all of us having sailed north across the equator that day.

Grooving to Loggins and Messina.

This crossing was a more sedate affair, being just the two of us, enjoying a few glasses of cold white wine from Chile. Our only company were the sea birds, out here in the middle of nowhere. We even had a tired Blue Boobie chick with red feet, hitching a ride overnight on the anchor at the bow. We also had the occasional pod of dolphins and four big Orcas swimming with us. The water was clear and blue, with the temperature around 28 deg C.

Day 8: Storm approaching.

Close to waypoint 4 on day 8 and motoring about two degrees south of the equator, Bob advised that the SE winds will be stronger at four deg, south of the Equator and to aim for 100 deg W. This was still 200 nm away, so we headed south and ran into quite a heavy rain storm (from the NW!). Showing how unpredictable weather systems can be. It gave the boat a good wash.

Day 10: Sunrise.

On Day 9, we were able to set a course to Nuku-Hiva in the Marquesas group of islands, still 2,642 nm away. We were now in the SE trade winds and settled into the Pacific Ocean rhythm for the rest of the trip. The Pacific lived up to its name as a passive ocean, with sometimes lumpy, or flattish seas, occasional showers, constant 15-20 knot south easterly trade winds and a westerly flowing ocean current of around 3 knots. Good sailing conditions!

Day 13: Rainbow on the horizon.

On Day 13 we reached the halfway mark in this 3,800 nm plus (7,038 km) Pacific crossing, with 1900 nm to go to Nuku-Hiva. We were rewarded with a huge Mahi Mahi that Annie caught, a beautiful rainbow preceding a storm and a serious rain storm during the night. Note: Annie’s fishing prowess didn’t include the stranded, stinking flying fish, we had to chuck overboard daily.

Mahi-Mahi.

We were making more easting than southing, but after crossing 5 deg south, we encountered continuous 2-3 m swells and heavy clouds, which invariably dumped rain on us at night. The rain and gusts were a nuisance at night, as it always resulted in reefing the main and shaking out the reefs at daybreak. Also tiring, was the constant rolling of the boat due to the big swells. I consoled myself that this is a form of exercise, improving my core strength.

Day 18: Sunset.

On day 19, the 1st April we were running out of fresh water. It was expected, as we use about 25 litres/day and knew we would have to run the desalinator during the crossing. The sea however was enormous which meant we could not risk putting the Honda generator on deck or drop the sea water hose over the stern, as the boat speed would have it sucking air on the water surface.

MetBob responded to our request for guidance and advised we should divert to 8 deg south, to get out of the convergence zone and into flatter water. We sailed south for 14 hours overnight, not making much westing. On day 20 at 9 am we dropped the sails, set the autopilot to take us dead downwind and jury rigged the sea water intake hose to the paddle board’s 2.5 m paddle.

The paddle we lashed low down on the Hydrovane shaft to get the inlet to maximum depth, as the stern was occasionally lifting clear out of the water, due to the following swells. You don’t want air sucked into a desalinator! Two hours later, the aft water tank was full and we set sail knowing we had sufficient water for the next eight days – quite a relief.

Day 21: Sunrise.

We managed to read a lot, listen to music and talk about our future plans, once back in Australia. We look forward to catching up with our daughters and our friends, sell the house and downsize to something smaller. Buy a car  and new bikes and then start planning for the Beyond the Great Barrier Reef Rally through the Coral Sea, in 2022. We may also attend the Shag Island Rendezvous in Queensland again.

Reading – a lot!

Our original ETA in the Marquesas was Wednesday the 7th April, but light winds over the last four days of our crossing, put paid to that. So here we are:

We have arrived at Nuku-Hiva on Friday 9th April 2021, Day 27 – a day short of four weeks. We have covered 4,028 nm (7,460 km) from the Las Perlas Islands in Panama. The 1982 South Atlantic Race from Cape Town to Uruguay on a Farr 38, remain our longest crossing at 28 days, with a greater distance sailed.

Passing the island to starboard as we approach Nuku-Hiva.

Approaching Nuku-Hiva.

Sailing into Taiohae Bay.

Harry the Hydrovane has steered us for the entire crossing, bar two hours, when we had to run the water desalinator to fill a water tank. Harry is a good crew member – never complains and doesn’t eat or drink.

Checking that Harry’s axles are tight.

Now we are going to relax and will report again in due course. Cheers!

Our anchorage in Taiohae Bay.

Out with the bubbly.

Esprit’s GPS track

Esprit’s route so far.

Panama City and the Las Perlas Islands.

Hi Folks

Rather late than never – this post is 4 weeks late! The reason? We were anchored off Pedro Gonzalez Island in the Las Perlas group, where I did this post with good phone reception. I should have published it then, because when we got to Isla del Rey, the last island before our crossing, there was no phone reception to be found. So here it is. Cheers! Next post to follow soon.

Dirk & Annie

Note: Click on any image to enlarge.

Panama City is big and consists of the old town which is being restored and gentrified, with half of it still very rundown and tired. Then there is the modern downtown area with amazing skyscrapers and a metro subway system, comparable to most modern high density cities. We anchored at Las Brisas de Amador, which is at the end of a 3.5 km causeway between the mainland and three small islands. The well landscaped causeway was built during the canal construction with material from the Culebra Cut excavations.

Panama City – partial plan. (Click on the images to enlarge)

The causeway and the three islands.

View of the city from the causeway.

Our first 7 km walk was to the Biodiversity museum opened in 2014 and designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the new Engineering building at the Sydney University of Technology. We have visited the latter buildings in the last three years and are impressed by the vision of the 91 year old Gehry and his associates.

Start of the Causeway walk.

Halfway across – beautiful landscaping.

The Biodiversity Museum.

The entrance area.

Structural engineer: “You want what?”

Shopfitter: “Definitely – this is the way he wanted it!”

Our next foray was by bicycle to the old town. We were pleasantly surprised by the friendly locals who would offer their assistance whenever we consulted our maps.me app to find our way on our phones. Quite a few enjoyed the opportunity to practice their English. After dicing with death on the spaghetti network of freeways on our bicycles, we decided to stick with buses and the metro.

Old town square.

The old City Hall on the square.

Basilica Santa Maria.

Basilica detail.

The nave inside.

Annie locking our bikes outside a restored Rey supermarket.

Durian fruit in the old town.

With our new electronic bus/metro card in hand, we enjoyed paying only 25 cents per bus trip and 35 cents per metro trip. In what must be the biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, we got lost in the Albrook Mall on three successive visits for groceries, a new Samsung tablet, haircuts, etc.

Downtown in the city.

Amazing building designs.

Monument to the French effort to build the canal.

Modern artwork next to the freeway.

Older monument from the Fred Flintstone school of art.

Right next to our anchorage at Las Brisas de Amador, is the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institute, based outside of the United States. Smithsonian scientists first came to Panama during the construction of the Canal from 1904 to 1914, to conduct a biological inventory of the new Canal Zone in 1910, and this survey was subsequently extended to include all of Panama.

Smithsonian Nature Centre.

Entrance to our Las Brisas anchorage.

I had ordered back up parts such a sheaves for blocks that take great loads and have seized up before, from Harken in Miami. Ridiculous how USD 75 of spares, incur USD 250 of Fedex freight charges! Whilst waiting for these parts to arrive and spotting a used oil disposal facility, I drained the engine and sail drive oil, replaced the 3 oil and fuel filters and filled up with 8 litres of new oil.

Flamenco Marina for fuel and water. Note the tidal height of the marina piles.

We filled up with 200 l diesel in our main tank and 200 l in jerry cans and 40 l of petrol, plus filled our water tanks, at Flamenco Marina yesterday. Diesel and petrol cost only AUD 70 cents/litre and with wine, beer and spirits equally cheap, we stocked up for the year. The parts eventually arrived and we have now checked out through our agent and will sail to the Las Perlas Islands on Sunday the 7th March when there is a good following wind predicted.

Leaving Panama after two lovely weeks, on the 7th.

Arriving at Contadora island in the Las Perlas islands.

The Las Perlas got their name when the Spanish arrived here in 1511 and relieved the indigenous King Toe of his cache of pearls and enslaved all the skilled pearl divers to dive for them. Most of the Islands have white sandy beaches, but the 2.8 to 3.0m tidal range, result in strong currents flowing northwest and southeast between the islands.

Shopping in Contadora.

View down to our anchorage.

Fishing village on Isla Pedro Gonzalez.

A lovely beach at our anchorage at Isla de Don Bernardo.

A bit late in the trip – Annie installing safety netting on the lifelines.

After a week in these islands, it appears that Saturday the 13th or Sunday the 14th March may provide a good weather window to set sail to the south of the Galapagos islands and then, track along the equatorial trades.

A reminder that you can send us a free SMS message while we are at sea (up to 160 characters). You have to go to https://www.predictwind.com/iridium-free-sms/ and enter our Iridium number, which is 8816 5240 9032.  This is the best way for us. Please do not attach photos or images.

In addition, I have activated Esprit’s tracking display, which can be viewed whenever you are interested to know where we were an hour ago.

https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Esprit3

On this long leg we will hum the Village People’s song: ”We joined the Navy to see the World, but what did we see? We saw the Sea!”

Cheers for now.

The Panama Canal.

Correction: My previous post stated that Karen and Evan hiked in NZ over Christmas. Not correct – they hiked in Tasmania – sorry guys!

Panama Canal map and section.

Limon Bay is a large anchorage for ships, protected by a long breakwater on the Atlantic or Caribbean side of the Panama canal. The City of Colon is on the eastern side of this anchorage and the Shelter Bay Marina is tucked in behind the breakwater on the western side – we tied up at the marina on Monday the 8th February 2021. First we had to have a Covid PCR test at the arrivals dock and after a negative result only an hour later, we were in our berth.

Canal info.

Shelter Bay Marina is quite busy with yachts coming and going on their canal transits. It has everything you need, including a gym, swimming pool, bar and restaurant. They offer a free bus service to Colon twice a day for shopping, which we used the day after we arrived. The restaurant serves good pizzas and salads, but the wines are expensive.

Our marina dock.

Restaurant next to the pool.

Sunset from our berth.

Good company, good wine and good food.

Friday the 12th February was Chinese New Year, which was a good enough reason for the yachties in the marina to have a Chinese potluck dinner at the BBQ area. We had a good turnout with some tasty Chinese dishes, followed by a big screen live broadcast of the Prada Cup races in NZ, between Italy (Aussie skipper) and the UK. The foiling monohulls are spectacular to watch, reaching up to 45 knots on the water!

Chinese New Year = Ah soh!

On the Saturday, “Energy Observer” a fascinating catamaran covered in solar panels, tied up at the marina. A floating laboratory for hydrogen, solar and wind energy propulsion and zero emissions. Visit: https://www.energy-observer.org/

The “Energy Observer”

A week after our arrival, on Monday morning the 15th February, the Canal Admeasurer came to measure Esprit for her canal transit. An efficient young lady, who got the job done in 45 minutes and then issued us with a transit number and the necessary documentation. A world of difference to our Suez Canal experience, where two Egyptian officials took a day for the same work.

The next day Roger our agent (Rogelio, pronounced Rohelio), delivered the big fenders and long mule lines required in the canal locks. He also collected payment for the transit which amounted to USD 2,354.00 (compared to the Suez canal charge of USD 600.00, three years ago). In addition, we had to pay 3 line handlers USD 120.00 each for their services. Our transit was scheduled for Friday the 19th February.

Equipment for the canal.

While waiting, we managed to have our life raft serviced – we got that back the day before our transit.

On Friday the 19th February, the Panama Canal transit advisor (pilot) and the three line handlers boarded Esprit in the Shelter Bay anchorage at 17:00. The advisor directed us under the new Colon bridge, to the holding area before the Gatun locks. Here we rafted up with our friends SV Nauplios, an aluminium yacht from the UK of roughly the same length as Esprit.

Our line handlers Ricardo, John and Ray.

Passing under the new Colon bridge.

SV Ghost passing us.

Nauplios approaching us to raft up.

Raft up done.

Elaine and Crawford Snedden on Nauplios.

We entered the first of three lock chambers, to rise a total of 26.5 m above the Caribbean sea level. Ahead of us in the 110 x 1000 ft (33.5 x 304.8 m) lock chamber was a reefer coastal cargo vessel and SV Ghost, a luxury yacht. Two shore men on each side of the chamber, threw thin heaving lines attached to “Monkey fists” down to our line handlers, which they in turn attached to thick mule lines on our decks. These lines were pulled up and attached to bollards on shore to keep the vessels centred in position.

Approaching the first Gatun lock.

Shore men walking our mule lines forward.

It was now getting dark and as soon as the huge lock doors closed behind us, the lock master opened the valves and water from the Gatun Lake above, gravity filled the lock chamber. The lock chamber has a capacity of 26 million gallons of water (50 Olympic size swimming pools) and was filled in eight minutes, through 70 openings in the floor of the chamber. The water was literally boiling around us, confirming the necessity of the mule lines.

Chamber doors starting to close.

Doors closed.

Line handlers pulling in the mule lines as the water rises.

Water flowing in through 70 openings in the chamber floor.

Lock full – Esprit and Nauplios as seen from Ghost.

The process was repeated through the next two locks, after which we motored a mile to a big floating buoy on Lake Gatun and tied up on it with Nauplios at 9pm. We then fed the adviser and line handlers who were sculling Cokes from the 24 can case we supplied. The advisers left our boats and the young line handlers eventually went to sleep on mattresses in the cockpit.

Waking up on Saturday next to Nauplios.

The next morning at 7:30 we served breakfast to the line handlers and at 8:30 a new adviser boarded Esprit for the 44 nm passage across Lake Gatun to the locks on the Pacific side. Towards the end, we went through the Culebra Cut which is the deepest excavation for the canal though the mountain watershed  on the isthmus of Panama. Most impressive, considering the thousands of men who toiled (and died) here, without modern earth moving machinery in the late 1890’s. Just past the Culebra Cut is the new Centennial bridge.

Approaching the Culebra Cut with Nauplios ahead of us.

Ghost passing us in the cut.

Looking back – once this was a mountain ridge.

The canal was opened in 1914 and since then ships planning to transit the canal had to be designed to fit the dimensions of the locks (The Panamax ships). In 2016 new larger locks were completed in parallel to the existing locks to accommodate larger ships (The Neopanamax ships). A few of these behemoths passed us.

Passing a huge Neopanamax ship in the canal.

Panamax and Neopanamax sizes.

Huge tugs working in the canal.

This tug passing us while doing a fire drill.

We now reached the three lowering locks on the Pacific side, the first being the Pedro Miguel lock (9.5 m step down). Esprit and Nauplios had to raft up on either side of Ghost, entering the lock first. A huge motor vehicle carrier (5,500 vehicles) came in behind us. This vessel built to Panamax specs, fitted in width into the lock chamber, with a few centimetres to spare on either side. She was towed into position by four electric locomotives on each side, centring her with thick mule cables, without scraping the paint on her sides.

Rafted up next to Ghost looking forward.

Ghost looking aft.

Darby and Joan – look at us, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous!

Shore men throwing their lines.

Caught by our line handlers.

The big ships get pulled by these electric locomotives.

A short distance away were the two Miraflores locks, stepping down 16.5 m at mid tide, on the Pacific Ocean side.

Entering the full Miraflores lock.

Here comes the vehicle carrier, pulled by locomotives.

Water level lowered, the doors open.

Out comes the vehicle carrier – a tight fit.

After these locks, we detached from Ghost and said our goodbyes – they were sailing up to the Gulf of Cortez in Mexico. Next up, was the big and filthy harbour of Balboa before passing under the Bridge of the Americas, a poor cousin of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We dropped our line handlers and their ropes and fenders at the Balboa Yacht Club, where Nauplios tied up to a mooring.

Nauplios and the Bridge of the Americas.

Here comes our lock buddy!

We motored on for another 30 minutes to drop our anchor at La Brisas, behind the long causeway, south of Panama City at 18:15, just in time to enjoy the sunset, cold beer in hand. This was truly an exciting experience on our journey so far. We plan to spend another two weeks here while waiting for spare backup parts for our Pacific crossing and sight seeing in this huge city – we can’t wait to see Frank Gehry’s Bio-diversity museum.

The Bio-diversity museum at a distance, as we motor out of the canal.

Panama city across the causeway.

In conclusion, two bits of Panama Canal trivia: 1) French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin worked as a common labourer on the Canal in 1887.

2) The lowest toll paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton when he swam the entire length of the Canal in 1928. The new larger “Neopanamax” ships can now pay more than a million dollars in toll.

The high price we paid for the transit, pales when considering the cost and the danger of sailing the extra 7,872 nm around Cape Horn in South America.

So, having now arrived on the Pacific ocean side and measured by longitude, we have covered 65% of the equatorial distance around the world. Our course north and south of the equator during the past 4.5 years added to the distance, to bring it to 28,132 nm (52,100 km) passing under Esprit’s keel. The Pacific being the largest ocean, accounts for slightly more than a third of the total equatorial distance, which we should finish by the end of the year.

Our route so far – click to enlarge.

Our next post will be on Panama City and the Las Perlas Islands off the coast, where we will wait for a weather window to cross to the Marquesas Islands, 3,800 nm to our west. Until then, Adios!

The Colombian and Panamanian Islands.

Our last night in Cartagena.

Farewell dinner.

Motoring out of Cartagena.

On the 11th January we motored the 14 nm from Cartagena, south to the Baru peninsula which has a beautiful long white beach with clear water on the North west side, called Playa Blanca. We found a sheltered anchorage in the lee of Punta Gigantes and it was so peaceful, we spent three nights here. It gave me the opportunity to clean Esprit’s waterline and sides which got quite dirty in Cartagena. Annie polished all the stainless steel work on the boat.

Playa Blanca.

From Playa Blanca it was a 7.5 nm sail south west to the Islas del Rosario Archipelago formed by a group of 27 small islands surrounded by intermittent reefs. We anchored on the South side of Isla Grande and spent a pleasant three days exploring the eastern and western sides. The North eastern side is where all the resorts are and although there are no roads on the island, there are beautiful walking tracks under the trees, all over the island.

Isla Rosario to San Bernardo.

A small island off Isla Grande.

Annie on a walking track.

Island scenery.

The north shore of Isla Grande.

One of the eco resorts on Isla Grande.

We set sail on Saturday the 16 th January in a light north westerly for the 26 nm sail to the San Bernardo Archipelago. This mini archipelago lies at the northern edge of the Gulf of Morrosquillo. It’s ten islands are a group of low rocks, wooded cays, and shoal banks with Isla Tintipán, the northernmost cay of the group and the largest. Its southern shore has a few attractive grass thatched resorts, where we anchored in crystal clear water.

Isla Tintipan.

The following day we sailed through the Gulf of Morrosquillo, looking for phone reception to check the weather for our crossing to Panama. We had no success off Isla San Bernardo, the towns of Berrugas and Santiago de Tolu. After 42 nm, we anchored in the bay Bahia de Cispata, where we had a good signal and were able to attend to emails and download the weather forecasts.

Our track around the Gulf of Morrosquillo.

It was a 25 nm motor sail to Isla Fuerte, our last stop in Colombia, where we anchored on the leeward shore, in a beautiful sheltered bay. Isla Fuerte owes its name to the fort (fuerte) built by the Spaniards to protect the island from attacks by pirates and privateers. The island is enclosed by reefs and the surrounding waters are very shallow far from the shore. This island has no vehicles or motorbikes – a few locals have bicycles and dozens of donkeys transport produce, water and supplies. We managed to spend our last Colombian Pesos in one of the small grocery stores of Puerto Limon.

Isla Fuerte.

Beautiful thatched roof and donkeys.

Beasts of burden.

Outdoor cafe where we had empanadas.

We decided to head from Isla Fuerte due west, to the outer islands of the San Blas archipelago off the Panama Isthmus mainland. The 150 nm overnight sail turned out to be hard work. Although the N-E wind only got up to 25 knots on our beam, the sea had built up to 3-4m swells after the weeklong  N-E winds. This, coupled with a contrary current, made for a very confused sea.   After 24 hours, we were relieved to anchor in the lee of the island Banedup, in the eastern Cayos Holandes group – wet, salt encrusted and tired.

Our route to San Blas.

Facing big seas to get there.

The San Blas Islands offer an exceptional area, worthy of exploring, for its uniqueness and beauty. Stretching about 170 miles along the North coast of Panama from Cabo Tiburon on the Colombian border, the chain of small islands named by the Spaniards as San Blas, is called Guna Yala by the original dwellers. Guna Yala is one of the three Panamanian departments that make up the autonomous Guna territory, inhabited by some 40,000 Guna Indians – scattered in 49 communities, both on the mainland and on the islands off the coast.

Guna Yala territory.

Guna Yala, the most populated of the three departments, encompasses over 378 small sand islands, most of them uninhabited and ranging from a decent size piece of wooded land to a tiny pile of sand with a few coconut trees gathered in the middle. Although fairly well protected from the sea by the surrounding reefs, the islands are located in shallow waters with no access for big vessels – and quite problematic for our 2.2 m draft. They rise above the turquoise waters just enough not to be seen due to the waves in rough seas.

Our landfall at Banedup island in the east Holandes.

And look – next to us: Merewether from Newcastle, Australia.

Do not be fooled by the bucolic beauty of the landscape. The whole cruising area is full of reefs, shoals, and shifting sand banks. The area is not charted in detail and commonly used electronic local charts are far from accurate. Eyeball navigation was the order of the day for us, despite three sources of charts behind the wheel – Navionics on the chart plotter, open CPN and other charts from Eric Bauhaus on two laptops.

Walking on Banedup island.

Banedup – Esprit alone at anchor in the bay.

Interesting beach furniture.

Neighbouring BBQ island.

Annie walking on Banedup south beach.

Fish, seafood, coconuts and plantains are relatively easy to get from the Gunas who will approach your boat on their ulus (wooden boats carved out of a single trunk, propelled with paddles and a rudimentary sail) to offer their catch, produce or crafts. Women are in charge of the household finances and contribute to the economy with the sale of their handcrafted molas, colourful pieces of cloth, sewn in multiple layers, then cut to reveal intricate patterns. Annie splurged on a few of these beautiful molas.

Guna fishermen in their ulu.

Mola seller.

An adjoining island.

Watch out for shallow water!

After 5 days at Banedup (with no internet), and exploring the surrounding islands by dinghy, we sailed the 8 nm distance to Green Island (Kanlildup) to get a Digicel phone signal, receive our emails and reply to them. There were 18 boats at anchor at Green Island, as this is one of the few islands where a slow internet signal could be had. We met some new cruisers anchored here and did walks on the island which was uninhabited. We bought fish and squid from the fishermen and had a visit from the Guna Yala officials to collect a USD 50 fee for a month long cruising permit in the San Blas Island waters.

Green island.

Beach on Green island.

Minute Sand island.

Sand island looking out to sea.

Four days later, we motored to the Coco Bandero Cays to the North. These small islands behind a long barrier reef are truly beautiful, but exposed to the fresh winds blowing in from the Caribbean sea. After two days, the wind and the swell picked up, so we decided to leave after taking the dinghy to Tiadup Island to the North, to drop off some rice, cooking oil and other pulses for the two families living there. They had come by in their ulu asking for things – we couldn’t understand their Spanish, so we gave what we thought they needed. After consulting Google Translate that evening, we realised that cooking oil and rice were the two words in Spanish they kept repeating.

Coco Bandero islands.

Annie enjoying the scenery.

Esprit anchored very close inshore in the narrow passage between islands.

Our next stop was 10 miles to the West in the central Holandes Cays where we anchored north off Miriadup in sheltered water. Miriadup has a number of houses on it, but is very plain compared to what we had seen thus far. The island to the North is largely a swamp and Bauhaus’s guide warns about the insects and no-see-ums that come out when the wind stops blowing

Another 10 mile sail southwest to the Cayos Chichime, saw us anchored in the lee of Uchutupu Dummat, the main island which houses a neat and colourful community. The main anchorage behind the reef had about 10 boats at anchor, which were more exposed to the swell, due to the fetch to the reef.

Chichime island in the lee of Uchutupu Dummat.

Circumnavigating the island by dinghy.

Crystal clear water.

Coming ashore to explore the island.

One of two fresh water wells on the island.

We explored the coastline of this island which had white beaches and clear water. Walking around the island, we met the locals who were very friendly and took trouble to rake the ground around their houses and under the palm trees. Like all these islands, the flotsam and jetsam from the oceans, unfortunately, end up on their windward shores.

Sand neatly raked below the palms.

The holiday bungalows sadly empty because of Covid.

One of three wrecks on the reefs offshore.

An ulu in the making – hacked out of a tree trunk.

Two days later, Elaine and Crawford Sneddon anchored next to us in SV Nauplios. We went over for a fabulous dinner with lots of wine, walked around the island and had water noodle sundowners.

Annie and Elaine walking to the village.

Guna dad and kids happy with the nuts and lollies we donated.

Walking through the village.

After four days we upped anchor and motored to the Cayos Limones (Lemon Cays). We only stayed for 30 minutes before moving on to Provenir Island, as the wind and swell were too much. All there was to see was an abandoned holiday resort on the water.

Lemon Cays – abandoned resort.

Provenir is the Guna Yala administrative centre with customs and immigration as well as a small regional airport. The wind and swell were too much again, so we anchored in the lee of the densely populated Wichubuala Island for the night.

Provenir island.

An ulu sailing past our anchorage at Wichubuala.

The next morning we made an early start for Puerto Linton, 40 nm to the West. The swell and the wind was manageable and we had a terrific sail to Linton Island, where we anchored with approximately 80 other yachts of various vintages and sea worthiness. Annie suggested a lot of boats on anchor here, won’t transit the Panama canal for financial reasons, or because a Pacific crossing was too daunting.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting anchorage with interesting characters hanging around the marina bar, staring at the horizon. There was good internet, so we stuck around for three days, catching up with emails etc, before setting off on our last leg to Shelter Bay marina, 30 nm to the West.

The bar at Linton Bay Marina.

Our next post by end February should be interesting, as we will be transiting the Panama canal, before setting off across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands 3,900 nm away. Please don’t send us any emails from about the end of February for about a month, while we are using the expensive Iridium satellite network – SMS messages will be OK.

Finally, news from our girls is that over the festive season, Michelle visited Cape Town in SA and Karen and Evan hiked in South Island, New Zealand.

Our friends in Cape Town, Lynne, Dave, Reini, Patricia and Michelle.

Evan and Karen hiking in South Island NZ.

Cheers for now!