(published October 2012)
February 18th—I recorded our departure from Easter Island in the logbook and noted that we had cleared out of New Zealand exactly one month earlier. We were ultimately bound for the Chesapeake Bay, bringing home Elcie, an aluminum catamaran recently built in New Zealand. We had a 24-day Southern Ocean passage barely behind us and it felt almost too soon to be going to sea again.
The massive stone Moai guarding the shores of Easter Island quickly disappeared as we sailed away. Rapa Nui’s mystical archeological sites and the lively town of Hanga Roa had enchanted us. Easter Island is so remote that the feeling of never returning enters one’s mind. We tried to soak up as much as we could in a week’s time and carry some of the spirit of Rapa Nui away with us.
The Galapagos lay some 2,000 miles to the north and the passage was all uphill. Close-hauled and reefed down with winds averaging 20 knots, Elcie handled the conditions in a mostly comfortable fashion. Flying fish pelted our decks nightly and the sea continued to deepen to an azure blue. The promise of penguins, giant tortoises and a good night of sleep pulled along our crew of six.
It was a bright, clear morning when we made landfall in the Galapagos. Two classic volcano cones were plainly visible on the southern end of Isla Isabela. As we worked our way along the coast and into the bay that encompassed Puerto Villamil, at least a dozen sea turtles were spotted riding lazily over light swells. A sperm whale sounded off the port bow, then resurfaced.
There were just three sailboats anchored inside the small islets that created a natural harbor. At Isabela, there was no need to book nature tours as the wildlife came to us. Before we had even launched the dinghy, penguins circled playfully around and beneath Elcie. Blue-footed boobies and pelicans landed on deck and a frigate bird lighted on the masthead. One morning, I surprised a very large sea lion lounging in our aft cockpit. He made a rapid but inelegant departure down the transom steps.
On the nearby islets, marine iguanas lined the stony paths and Sally Lightfoot crabs skittered along the shore. We biked 10 miles down the coast, exploring the pocket beaches and desert landscape along the way. The residents of the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center provided a rather loud and graphic lesson in sex education for our daughters, Emma, nine and Molly, seven.
For Elcie’s two youngest crewmembers, the best thing in the Galapagos, besides the wildlife, were the seven other cruising children who arrived while we were there. The anchorage became a giant swimming pool, with a tumbling raft of kids and water toys happily moving between the anchored boats. We made several trips inland with the crews of other boats to a farm, a rodeo and a volcano. By the end of our stay, we felt we had experienced the best of what the Galapagos had to offer. A chorus of conch shells from friends aboard neighboring boats marked Elcie’s departure on March 18th.
On the second day of our passage to Panama, our GPS ticked down the latitude degrees to the equator. Richard and I planned the obligatory ceremony for those “crossing the line” for the first time. The uninitiated were put through a series of rigorous tests and cleansing rituals to prepare them for the arrival of King Neptune and Queen Amphitrite. All passed and Elcie now had three more “Trusty Shellbacks” on board.
Three days later, we sailed close by Isla Malpelo, a rugged, isolated island belonging to Colombia. The name in Spanish, “bad hair” island, seemed to fit as an unruly cloud clung to the highest peak. The island’s craggy cliffs were dotted with thousands of gannets. Nestled into the steep-sided hill, overlooking a long dock was a tiny building, possibly used by the Colombian navy.
In Panama City, we anchored off Playa Flamenco amid an incredibly diverse collection of boats busily loading final provisions and spare parts before heading off into the Pacific. Our goal was not to linger in the Canal Zone too long. Having completed the necessary paperwork and admeasuring, Elcie was set to transit. There was much to see and do on the other side.
With our advisor on board, we entered the canal and reached the first gates by 8am. A young Swiss backpacker and a Dutch sailor joined us as line handlers. Elcie rode up the first two locks side-tied to a hogged wooden vessel packed with tourists. The boat listed precariously over us as the curious onlookers fired a barrage of questions. Do you stop every night? Where do you anchor at sea? Is it always rough? What do you eat? The girls cheerfully fielded questions until we parted ways and headed for the next lock.
SLOTH: NOT JUST A DEADLY SIN
Once out of the canal and in the Caribbean, there was one stop we especially wanted to make. A family we met in the Galapagos suggested we visit Port Linton to meet some tame sloths that lived with an ex-cruising couple. On a lovely porch above the bay, introductions to these strange creatures were made. We were smitten. Moving at a comically slow speed with gangly arms and legs and curved toenails, sloths will hang nimbly from anything or anyone. In hysterics, three of us tried to disentangle one of them from a bamboo chair suspended from the porch roof.
Writing limericks became a way to pass time on board and make schoolwork fun. One of Richard’s rhymes came true the next day when we arrived in the San Blas Islands.
If a man comes up and says “Hola”
He might try to sell you a mola.
He won’t want to trade
For the things that he made
But he would like a cold Coca-Cola.
Venancio, a well-known mola maker, arrived by dugout not long after we had anchored. From a plastic tub, he produced over 100 intricately stitched works of art. After much deliberation, we picked out a few and bought them—with cash. He declined our offer of the t-shirts we had on hand for trading purposes, but he did ask for a Coca-Cola!
The small sand and palm islands of the San Blas were much more crowded with cruising boats than they had been on our previous visit in 1998. It was now a floating community, complete with a morning yoga class on the beach. We enjoyed the snorkeling and found several healthy reefs. I was very surprised, however, to see lionfish—a Pacific fish—now inhabiting and, by most accounts, decimating Caribbean reefs.
On April 18th, we hauled back and headed for the Bahamas. By distance, it was the shortest passage of our trip but felt longer due to light winds, contrary winds, and a full day spent slogging up the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. As we passed within sight of Haiti in fairly boisterous conditions, several small sloops with Haitian fishermen sailed by and waved eagerly. Knowing of the difficulties still facing the country since the devastating earthquake in January of that year left a hollow feeling among our crew.
Once out of the grip of the Windward Passage, we had an easy reach to the west end of Great Inagua, the southernmost island of the Bahamas. Clearing customs was a smooth process, and the friendly residents of Matthew Town made us feel most welcome. Rides into town were accepted despite wanting to stretch our legs. Locals gave us fruit and baked goods. We were directed to the only Internet “hotspot,” a shaded stone wall in the middle of town that receives an intermittent Wi-Fi signal.
On our first morning, a ramshackle wooden boat with a blue plastic tarp for a jib ghosted into the anchorage at sunrise. With no engine, the crew poled the boat through a narrow opening in the shoreline and alongside a municipal dock. The nine sailors had come overnight from Ile de la Tortue, off the north coast of Haiti, in search of scrap lumber to haul back to their village. Hand-hewn crooked spars were held in place by rusting metal and frayed line, and a charcoal stove on deck served as a galley. We were reminded again of how our idea of minimum comfort and safety at sea differs greatly from most of the world’s mariners.
The captain talked to us about his village and living conditions since the earthquake. Because they were headed back to Haiti the following day, we asked what might be needed. The afternoon was spent sorting through clothes, shoes, books, toys and food and filling several large bags. Elcie’s waterline came up a little and the men were very appreciative of all we offered. A large number of the villagers would soon be sporting old boat show tees and caps.
Also while in Great Inagua, a local guide took us to see a magnificent colony of flamingos in the island’s interior. There were thousands of the tall pink birds feeding in the lakes and saltpans. The crystalline landscape at the salt loading docks looked more like a scene from the arctic than the tropics.
On one of our few downwind sails since leaving New Zealand, we went overnight to Long Island then on to Conception Island, a part of the Bahamas National Land and Sea Park. A sparkling white beach encircled the turquoise blue northwestern bay where we anchored. The illusion of a pristine paradise was quickly shattered when we hiked across to the windward side of the island and found plastic trash had washed up there in appalling amounts. The girls collected enough fishing buoys, line and plastic pallets to build a raft. They put to sea but soon found it was a wet ride.
My parents joined us in Georgetown to island-hop up the Exuma chain. Being May, a week of ideal weather was had with brilliant sunny days and light breezes. We glided over shallow banks, our sails’ shadows cast upon the sand bottom. Elcie’s less-than-a-meter draft made weaving between the reefs a pleasure instead of a nail-biting experience. The famous swimming pigs near Staniel Cay thoroughly entertained us while enjoying the contents of our food scrap bucket.
LUCKY 18? NAH.
By May 17th, we had worked our way up to Hope Town in the Abacos. Richard and I discussed leaving the following morning for the northbound passage to the Chesapeake Bay and home. According to the calendar, it was the day to go. By coincidence, we had started every other passage of this homeward bound voyage on the 18th of the month. Would it be bad luck to leave on any other day? Throwing superstition out the porthole, one more day was spent enjoying the Abacos. We departed on the 19th for an unremarkable passage and entered the mouth of the Chesapeake four days later.
With a non-U.S. crewmember on board, Elcie had to clear in with U.S. Customs and Immigration at an official port of entry. Yorktown, Virginia was a convenient stop on our way into the bay. It also happens to be the homeport of some old sailing friends who operate a 100-foot replica schooner from the town wharf. They were fabulous hosts, securing a spot for our modern vessel on the dock astern of their very traditional one.
We completed the final part of our journey through familiar waters in two days. It was a lovely feeling sailing into the Tred Avon River and our hometown of Oxford, Maryland. All seemed quiet ashore and we felt sure that our approach had gone unnoticed. However, an impromptu gathering alongside the town dock brought a large number of friends and townsfolk to greet us. Arriving home, after some 10,000 miles with a new boat, was something to celebrate for sure!
Jessica and Richard Johnson are taking Elcie back to New Zealand via the Panama Canal and South Pacific in 2013 and invite those seeking sailing adventures and offshore experience to join them. More information on Elcie’s itinerary and upcoming sailing opportunities can be found at www.elcieexpeditions.com.