Officials and Missing Propellers
02 June 2008 | Isabela
We got up at 5AM to get the boat ready for an 80 nautical mile passage to Isabella, one of the western most islands in the Galapagos. It took us about 45 minutes to get everything ready to go, not to mention the time spent yesterday.
We motored out of the anchorage just as the sun was peeking over the San Cristobal highlands. We put up the main and rolled out the jib just outside of the harbor, falling off to 264 degrees true, a direct course for Villamil, the only real town in Isabella.
The true wind was light at around 13 knots but is was in our sweet spot, on the beam. We averaged 9 knots for most of the run. This brought us to the Villamil approach at about 15:00. We initially made a line for Isla Tortuga just south of Isabela at 1 degree south. There was a dead bit as we passed north of Floreana where the wind died down to 5 knots or so. We waited it out and in 15 minutes or so things were coming back. Before long we were back up to speed and closing on Tortuga.
Tortuga looks to be the north half of a large volcano cone just popping its head above water. The south part of the cone is inscribed on the charts as an underwater obstruction. We sailed north of it, staying well south of Roca Bura and the reef line that runs back to Isabela from its position. Tortuga is definitely an alien landscape with black rock predominating and rivulets of erosion and old lava flows running down its sides.
We sailed for a mark in the neighborhood of 01 south 091 west. At this point you have cleared the off shore reef (really rocks not reef) and head into shore on a bearing of 029 degrees true using the green buoy and shore based light as a transit. We cut this corner a bit watching our British Admiralty chart and the sounder carefully. When we reached the transit line we started the engines and dropped the sails. While I couldn't be sure, it seemed like we weren't getting the thrust I expected.
We motored in on the green buoy and then turned due east to make for the red and green marks up the coast. This takes you behind the rocky shoal toward the anchorage. Waves break to port on the coast and to starboard on the rocky shoal, which is always interesting. Once through the red and green marks you make directly for the large orange mark which sits at the entrance to the anchorage.
There are two places you can go ashore. There is a rock pier with stone steps leading down to the water off the beach to the west with waves breaking all over the place. The town dock is up the coast a bit to the west but you must inscribe the largest possible arc around the bay to get there safely as there are rocky shoals all through the little protected harbor.
Most boats anchor just inside the orange mark. If you head a bit farther in to the southeast you can get out of any swell that might be sneaking in. The anchorage is formed by the coast of Isabela and a collection of little rocky islands that rise a foot or two over the high tide mark.
As we came into the anchorage we targeted the area in past the other three boats to give everyone lots of room. The anchorage had one cruising yacht and two tour boats when we arrived. As we passed the sail boat and head south I noticed a strange lack of control centered around the port engine. Further testing confirmed that the port engine was revving but no thrust was resulting in forward or reverse.
Luckily we have two auxiliaries, unluckily I was now driving the boat with one motor mounted 4 meters from the centerline. I decided exploring the fringes of the anchorage to get the best spot was no longer prudent. Hideko was on the fore deck with Nobu readying the anchor. I told them we had an issue and needed to get anchored smoothly with little help from the auxiliaries and preferably in amongst the other boats where we knew the ground was clear and good.
Catamarans do not need to have way on to maneuver quite like mono hulls. With two props 8 meters apart you can pretty much wiggle in anywhere. However with one prop way outboard things get tricky. Prop wash works but not as well as it would with a mono hull. There's no prop walk because the sail drives place the prop at a 90 degree angle to the surface, making both sides of the prop travel through the water at the same angle. You can go ahead but you need steerageway to invoke the rudder. You can go astern but you get a big doughnut shape arc due to the prop location.
I let the wind blow us back clear of the sailboat to starboard. Once out of the way I revved up the starboard engine to get steerage quickly. After that we selected the safest, not most comfortable, spot to drop the hook and got the anchor down. I couldn't really keep the bow up so we just blew off sideways in the wind. Once on the bridle I did manage to set the anchor with the remaining engine.
We had only planned a day or two visit to Isabela. This was not a happy occurrence. I tried hard but could only imagine one thing having this effect that would not fall into the "fairly serious" category. My dearest hope was that it was just the transmission cable.
As we talked about how to investigate this occurrence the port captain representative arrived. He spoke very little English and our Spanish had not constructively improved since San Cristobal. I told him we had a problem. He climbed on the boat said quite a bit, but I retained "come to the Capitania office in the next hour or two". He pointed at the blue roofed building straight through the crashing surf and then he left.
Not excited about putting our dinghy down and figuring out how to get through the breaks at dusk I began to ponder my options. Hideko saw one of the charter boats heading into shore and hailed them. One of the men spoke pretty good English and offered to take me ashore. I gratefully accepted. The route in to the stone pier on the west end of town is gnarly. I would not try this until you have gone with a local several times. There is one spot where it "usually" doesn't break between a vicious line of rocks running along the east coast and off shore to the into the west. In general you make a straight line from the anchorage to the corner of the pier but you must veer to port to stay off the coastal rocks (a large clump just under water is very hard to see), the head starboard straight into shore until you get past the breakers to port, then back to port to run along just inside of the break, carefully watching for any strays.
The pier is really an enhanced lava rock point with a stone staircase set into an small lee area behind the wall with room for maybe four dinghies packed in tight. The man running the tour boat and I got off safely and, duly impressed, I thanked him and the driver. I made a mental note to ask how to navigate into the town dock for future reference.
The Capitania's office is right on the beach and it only took a minute to walk down the beautiful pier and across the wonderful and peaceful beach area to the gate. The man who had come to the boat said hello and after much Spanish I could not make out told me to make copies of my documents down the street for him. So I waked to the corner, noticing that all of the streets in Isabela are just sand. The island is very natural and the foreign aid that has helped build the organic street lights made from knurled bits of wood and surreal looking glass globes has done much to preserve the feeling on the Galapagos even in the small town of Villamil.
After paying my 10 cents per page at the phone center where many locals make use of the only phones they have access to, I returned to the port captain. We could stay one day (I felt I could have bargained for two) or pay the port fees we paid in San Cristobal all over again and stay as long as we wanted (with an unspoken limit implied). I tried to tell him that two days might be sufficient but I didn't know until I inspected the problem and sorted out any parts I might need. No of this seemed to stick. In the end I just paid his fees so that we could be left in peace (little did I know this was not to be).
We paid about $500 all told in San Cristobal. A chunk of this was an agent fee of $150 to Carmella Romero. This is basically vigorish as you pretty much do everything yourself. Carmella doesn't speak a word of English so there's not even that to her credit. The port captain wants you to use an agent though, you can imagine why, so it is best to do so. The port captain charged us for a displacement of 45 tons because that is our coast guard listed gross tonnage. I tried to explain that this was silly because the boat weights 15 tons and that the gross tonnage is not related to the boats weight in non commercial applications such as yachts. He told me to take it up with the coast guard and charged me $277 total including the $135 for the tonnage. We paid various other $15ish fees to immigration (the police station) and for the Zarpe (clearance out).
The officials in some cultures just feel slimy to me. You grease their palms and all is well. You want to be treated fairly and do things by the book, look out. Ecuador is rated as the second most corrupt country in Central and South America. I would not contest this. There are no clear guidelines as to how you will be treated or what you will pay. If the port captain doesn't like the way you look he can tell you to leave then and there and this is completely within his jurisdiction. It almost feels as if they charge as much as they think you can or will pay.
Unfortunately this is a top to bottom problem in Ecuador. It seems as if all of the ambitious folks in the society believe this is how you should behave. Many have never known anything else. It will take a long time to change the culture.
But I digress. The official continued to ask me how long we would stay. I repeated told him I didn't know, I hadn't even had a chance to look at the problem. If I needed a part flown in how long would that take. He said he didn't know and ask how long I would stay. In the end I gave up and said I would pay to stay since it was unlikely that I would leave in 48 hours at this point. He said that if we did that there was no charge. I convinced him that our sail boat weighted 15 tons and so he only charged me $45 for weight. My total bill was $170, the last $20 added in probably because I didn't contest the $150 number hard enough. There was no receipt forthcoming.
Hideko had wisely handed me the portable VHF as I jumped into the skiff on the way to shore. I now had to figure out how to get back to the boat. It would be unsafe for Hideko and Nobu to try to get to the pier and I wasn't sure how to get to the dock on land or how to safely arrive by dinghy either. Fortunately I found the gentleman who had brought me over relaxing at the bar on the rock pier. He offered to take me back and I gratefully accepted again.
The surf was coming up and the ride back was even a bit more interesting. I was still holding out hope that we might fix the boat, tour the island and leave in time to reclaim our fees.