Paradise on Palmerston Island

Palmerston Island is one of the Southern Cook Islands and around 650 miles going west from our last port of call in Bora Bora. We had a mixed passage getting here with everything from squalls to calms and it took us 5 days. We had debated missing out the Cooks on our way to Tonga but were really pleased we hadn’t, we would have missed one of the nicest and most interesting places in the world.

Sunset over Bora Bora

Arthur Neale, the Island administrator described it as, “the most isolated remaining bastion of the British Empire”, visited once by Prince Philip on Brittania in the 60’s. The island is still a British protectorate and administered by New Zealand. It is a community of only 55 people most of whom are descended from William Masters who was a 19th century adventurer from Gloucestershire who arrived via the northern Cook island of Penryn with 3 Polynesian wives and later settled on Palmerston in the late 19th century after a life as a whaler and a prospective gold miner in the US. The marriages produced 26 children and from there a dynasty was born. There are now over 1500 Masters family members, who originated from here, around the world but only around 50 who still live here. Palmerston island is one of several Motus (islets) around the rim of the 10 mile wide atol but the only one which is inhabited. The other Motus are reserved for coconuts, crabs and birds. The next nearest Cook island is about 200 miles away to the south.

Looking to Palmerston from the anchorage.

By good luck we arrived on the island at the start of their 4 day annual independence celebrations having asked for permission to land by SSB email en route. Palmerston is not a recognised port of entry into the Cook Islands but nevertheless we received permission from Arthur Neale the island administrator. We tied up to one of their buoys just off the reef and dropped our anchor to a metre off the bottom as added security against failure of the mooring rope, it happens! If it broke the noise of the dragging anchor would alert us to the problem as we drifted towards the reef and this way we didn’t damage the coral by digging our anchor in.

We were greeted by brothers Simon and Edward Masters in their dory’s who directed us to pick up a mooring buoy. Unfortunately we missed on the first few passes (women drivers!) and then got the mooring line jammed around the rudder, not a very auspicious arrival. I dived in while Edward pulled Romano back with his launch to ease the tension on the mooring line and I was able to free us.

Martha the health inspector and Island nurse was first on board and sprayed the boat with some lethal chemicals so we had to seal everything and stay in the cockpit for 20 minutes. This was mainly a precaution against fruit fly from French Polynesia. She told us we could keep our stocks of fresh fruit on board, now nicely flavoured with chemicals but on no account were we allowed to take any ashore. Once the boat had been fumigated by Martha for the princely sum of $20 she was followed on board by Arthur Neale the island administrator and customs and immigration officer who cleared us in to the island for a further $70. Arthur explained that Simon and Edward would be our hosts during our stay however it wasn’t clear at this stage what that meant. After clearing in and despite being bleary eyed after little sleep we were whisked ashore by Simon to join in the festivities. The beach volleyball semi finals were underway, chairs were brought for guests and cold drinks provided while we watched four very good teams battle it out for a place in the final. The final proved to be quite a close game but the team with the biggest slammers won.

After the volleyball Simon took us and three Swedish guys off SV Salsa on a brief tour of the island which measures just half a mile in diameter and showed us the main facilities. The island is covered in sand and is kept very clean and tidy, coconut trees predominate but there were giant mahogany trees and mango and pawpaw to provide fruit in season. Palmerston is no more than half a mile in diameter and completely surrounded by reef with only a couple of very small passes for the islander’s fishing dorys. There is a shallow multi hued lagoon around the island, inside the reef, with lots of coral heads making for tricky navigation. It looks and feels like everyone’s idea of a typical island paradise pure white sandy beaches, coconut palms leaning casually over the turquoise lagoon water, the distant thunder of breaking waves on the outside of the reef and the deep blue of the ocean beyond. I had to pinch myself it’s not paradise but it’s pretty damn close.


Imagine calling this home!

Fishing is the main occupation now that the copra trade has ceased and the main export is parrot fish caught around the reef and highly prized in Rarotonga. The island is served by a cargo ship which arrives each 3 to 5 months and intermittently goods and food are brought by yachts travelling from other Cook Islands. The only way to get here is by yacht or cargo boat, we were the 24th yacht to visit in 2016, so not a busy place. Simon told us that the island could easily be self sufficient but they have now got used to imported luxuries from around the world. The island economy was sustained for many years by the copra trade but this was very hard work for little reward and involved even children being given quotas of coconuts to collect and husk which kept them busy from daybreak to dusk. Today the government gives the islanders a generous social allowance and there is no longer any need for people to work. They have television, Internet, fridges and freezers, washing machines, showers, mobile phones, tablets and all the modern equipment you would find in a UK home, all bought and powered by government handouts! The local school has 21 children aged from 5 to 16 being taught by a young American/South African couple on a three year contract, the headmistress is Arthur Neale’s New Zealand wife.

After our tour the five of us were taken to Edward’s house where lunch had been prepared for us. We dined on a huge dish of fish cooked in a rich soy based sauce and washed down with homemade fresh lemonade. Over lunch we talked about the island and its rules and customs most of which had been set down by the original William Masters. 
Brothers, Simon and Edward are 5th generation Masters with Simon head of the family and Ed the local policeman. The island had been divided into three equal parts for each of the original William Master’s three “wives” and then their 26 offspring and Simon was the current head of his family’s section. No one can sell land or change the original distribution although their are common facilities like the church, solar farm, school and central water catchment facility. Rainwater is the only source of fresh water being caught on the roofs of houses and stored in large tanks hopefully holding enough to see them through the dry season. The houses are of reinforced concrete construction with corrugated tin roofs and spacious. Chickens and pigs run wild and I asked how egg collection worked, the chickens and pigs are marked, the chickens by clipping their claws and each family has a different clip pattern. The chickens can lay their eggs anywhere around the island but any eggs laid on your land are yours. There is a barter system in operation on the island so if one family has a surfeit of Mangoes or PawPaw they can exchange for something they need. No money changes hands, cash is used to buy things off island. Ed explained how he came to be the island policeman. The government in the capital on Rarotonga asked him to do the job but he refused, a thankless task on a tiny island. However the government ignored him and paid his salary anyway so he thought after a couple of months he should do it anyway. There is no cell on the island so he has to radio Rarotonga to send a boat for any miscreants. This happens very seldom and normally a warning from muscly PC. Ed is enough to deter any troublemakers.

We asked what everyone did as no one worked any more, Simon said “they gossip about each other”, it’s the favourite pastime. We could imagine the island being a political hot bed with everyone living in very close proximity and nowhere to go.

After a lazy afternoon Edward took us back to the boat, through the coral maze, at high speed. Clearly he had done this many times before but for us it was an exhilarating white knuckle ride.

Ed promised to pick us up at 08.30 the following morning in time for the next days events, when he arrived the following morning, bang on time, we were still fast asleep. I staggered up top and apologised profusely asking if he could come back in an hour. After an hour and a half it was clear he wasn’t coming back any time soon so we launched the kayak and set off for a nearby gap in the reef with our bags etc securely tied down. We thundered through the reef on the back of a rolling wave and fortunately didn’t turn turtle or hit anything, exciting stuff. When we arrived in the village the “eating a sticky donut on a string” competition was underway with the crew of Salsa up against two big Polynesian men. They had no chance! 

The two island guys had already finished well ahead of the two Swedes

Next up was the “quickest to thread a needle” competition” very difficult to do under pressure and one of the old grannies beat everybody else twice over with ease. We had missed the tug of war earlier through sleeping in and learned that Ed had been a key member of the losing team which explained why he hadn’t been able to come back for us. In the afternoon after another great lunch at Ed’s house we went to watch the singing and dancing competitions and joined in afterwards to try our hand at wiggling bums and leg shaking, much to the amusement of the locals.


Gill doing a very British wiggle

One of the young girl dancers


A group of singers with Simon in the foreground

The following day was Saturday with the whole day dedicated to a fishing competition, it started at 6am so I didn’t volunteer to go out with the boats but stayed in the weighing in station to see the catches as they came in. The women and children walked across the shallow lagoon to the edge of the reef and fished from there. The men went out in boats after larger catches and the first to come back had four big wahoo the largest of which weighed in at 31kg and was easily 8 ft long. The man who caught them was massive himself with arms like tree trunks, he needed to be, he caught them on a simple handling trolled behind the boat. I asked him if we was going out again as he still had hours to go before the competition closure time of 2pm but he said no one would beat his catch and he was right as it turned out. He gutted and filleted the fish and then his wife cooked some of it including the skin which was fried to crispy and tasted delicious, so we had lunch there that day. 


The catch of the day, three wahoo

The boats and reef fishers came back with lots of different fish, big barracuda, Mahi-Mahi, tuna, flounder, parrot fish, surgeon fish, grouper, bass and many more we didn’t know the names of. There were prizes for boat catch and largest fish for both reef fishers and boatmen and prizes for children’s catches. 


A proud PC Edward with his catch

Everyone on the island was very open and friendly, the children were fearless and took to us as easily as if we had been a part of their family. One young boy of twelve came up to us on our second day while we were looking at grave stones in the churchyard and shook our hands and introduced himself as Noumi. He asked us questions about ourselves and our travels and home and told us about his life all in an open and confident but not pushy way. How many children in our society would have the maturity and confidence to do similar? Our hosts had been especially hospitable and we wanted to repay a little of that so we gave the family, books and colouring pens for the school and tinned foods, nuts, raisins, rum and beer for themselves, all of which they were very pleased to receive. No alcohol is consumed in public but it was clear that Simon and Ed were pleased with the booze.

The South Sea islands are very strong on religion so Sunday on Palmerston is kept as a day of rest, church going and prayer. We asked if we could join them for the morning service so Ed came out in his dory to collect us at 8.30 and this time we were up breakfasted and ready to go, Gill in a posh dress and me in checked shorts and a yellow tee shirt. When we arrived at Simon’s house he took one look at me and disappeared in the house to emerge with a pair of long black trousers and a cream long sleeved shirt. Shirley, Ed’s wife loaned Gill a very fetching floral hat to cover her head and off we went in procession. In the church the men and women are segregated, no hanky-panky here, so we parted, men on the left and women on the right. I tried following some of the hymns in the Polynesian hymnal but gave up and listened to the congregation, men singing one line the women the next in beautiful harmony. The minister who was dressed in white trousers and white jacket with gold buttons included us yachties in his sermon thanking us for swelling their population! and bringing “things” to the island, I wasn’t sure if it was a hint but I went up anyway and thanked him afterwards for his well meaning words of welcome.

Back at Ed’s house I quickly stripped off the hot clothes and was much happier back in my shorts and tee shirt. Sunday lunch was impressive with fish, chicken and some local birds they had shot or trapped which tasted and looked like tender grouse. This was followed by slices of delicious chocolate cake that Gill had made the day before. Over lunch Simon mentioned that he was looking for a new wife as at 63 and head of the family and a man of property but with only 3 sons (10 children would be closer to the norm) it was clearly time to have more. He had decided an Australian or New Zealand doctor was who he wanted to marry next which would also provide the island with better medical facilities, two problems solved! He said he would go to New Zealand to pick the woman himself, he didn’t want any of his sisters who lived there doing the selecting for him. The island is a very chauvinistic place and the men have no hesitation in telling you that the role of women is to cook clean, warm the bed and bring up their many children. We tried explaining to Simon that a young doctor from New Zealand or Australia wasn’t going to take kindly to that kind of life or treatment and that 50 patients were not likely to satisfy her professional needs but he couldn’t understand, in his mind he was a plum catch any woman would be pleased to marry.

We had the rest of the afternoon off and went snorkelling in the lagoon to return to the village at 4pm to watch a hymn singing competition. Each team was dressed in matching designs and or colours and the ladies wore beautiful floral hats or lei’s. Some of the hymns were surprisingly aggressive with both men and women battling words, jumping around and throwing lines like spears across the room and at the top of their voices. You’d be thrown out of most churches for that kind of behaviour but they seemed to enjoy it hugely.

The ladies competed that afternoon in a bake off for the best cake with the theme of “the throne” as this was a celebration of their constitution. The best bit was we were allowed to taste each of the entries, not very slimming but yummy!

After the hymn singing competition I thanked the people gathered for allowing us to join in their festivities, for showing us unconditional friendship and for arranging such generous hosts and thanked them in particular for their outstanding hospitality. Afterwards we had been invited to a village feast which was held on the beach near the Blue House, the table must have been 30ft long and was laden with many different dishes, enough at least for a double our number. There were however a few 20 stone trenchers there who make short work of the leftovers.

Visiting the island had been a great experience and even after such a short stay we felt we were leaving good friends behind. Ed took us back to the boat through the coral maze unerringly in the dark. We left at first light after radioing Ed a final farewell and thanks. The island of Nuie was 300 miles to the west and the wind was fair and following so off we wallowed. Our friends on Red Thread had gone north up to Suwarrow in the Northern Cooks, a national park only populated by a couple of Rangers and we had agreed to keep in touch during our track across to Nuie. They left a day before us and were there on Nuie when we arrived but more of that in the next blog.

A Close Encounter – by Gill

There are those heart-stopping times in cruising when you wonder if “this is it”?! “Has our luck run out, have we pushed it that bit too far or been too ambitious for our own good?” From the safety of a calm and beautiful anchorage in Raivavae we were thankfully able to reflect on the close encounter and knew that we were extremely lucky still to be afloat aboard an incredibly well built, tough and resilient yacht.
Our 6 day sail from the Gambier islands, leaving on a Friday 13th, had been uneventful and after the previous tempestuous leg, thankfully, relatively calm with light winds. So light, in fact, that at times we had had to squeeze every last puff out of the breeze, for much of the journey we sailed goose-winged and poled out (mainsail out one side and jib poled out on the other, to catch the following breeze). The resultant motion in this configuration is not pleasant and we rolled back and forth in a very sloppy and uncomfortable manner for days, giving us both a dose of chronic indigestion! Our daily tally of miles was low but an extra day or two under way wasn’t any big deal. We finally came to a halt on the last evening with the island of Raivavae in sight some 30 miles off when the winds shifted to the West “on the nose” and even hand-steering failed to maintain any forward motion.  

With the final instruction on my watch from the skipper that if the winds didn’t shift (as they were forecast to do but as usual the forecast was wrong) to a more favourable quadrant so that we could sail the last bit, I was to start the engine at midnight to move us along towards a daybreak landfall. At 2.00am and under engine Mike relieved me of my watch and I, as usual, climbed gratefully into my bunk. At 5.45 and in the pitch dark, I was rudely awoken as I was bounced with force from the bunk. Initially, I thought it must have been a rogue wave in a patch of very rough water hitting the side of the boat or a large log, but as more violent strikes followed realised it wasn’t the sea or logs. As I clambered out of the bunk, Mike appeared down below in shock, with the unimaginably terrifying words, “we’re on the reef”. In the dark it was impossible to see exactly what lurked below us, but we could certainly feel the impact of one bomie (coral head) after another as we continued across the submerged reef towards a line of white water in the distance. We lurched violently from side to side as the keel struck time and again, throwing us over from gunwale to gunwale. Time seems interminable in such a circumstance and with the horror of not being able to see and work out the best way clear, Mike put the boat in reverse at full power but were we actually moving backwards? It was impossible to tell in the dark and we prayed we would soon find ourselves back in deep water. After a good 40 minutes of gut-churning, breath-holding grinding and slamming we managed to turn the boat seaward with the help of the bow thrusters and all went calm again as we floated free. We were still, unbelievably, afloat with the rigging intact, the keel still attached, no water coming in and it seemed we were in no imminent danger of going to the bottom.

At the “inquest” a very chastened and embarrassed Mike admitted that his calculations on distance to the waypoint (which it appeared had mysteriously moved to rest on top of the reef – that gremlin again!) were wildly inaccurate and, worst of all, at the time of impact he had been sitting down below with his nose buried in a book!! We have both had many lessons to learn on this journey but this has been one of the most painful and potentially dangerous of them all as we considered how lucky we had been not to have lost the boat. (It was threatened that the kindle would be confiscated on all subsequent night passages and Mike would be lashed firmly to the wheel!!). We have heard that complacency is the worst enemy of sailors and it takes a lesson like this to reinforce and reawaken us to the dangers of the oceans and relying too much on electronic navigation.

Amazingly, the prop shaft “fix” which we had agonised over and which we had been carefully nursing with slow engine revs to minimise stress, was not only intact but showed no evidence of any movement and not even the tiniest trickle into the bilge. It was with fingers crossed and expecting the worst that Mike eventually plucked up courage to attach himself to the hookah once more and dive below to inspect the damage. As expected, the keel had not gone unscathed and the forward part was missing some “chunks” with the fibreglass the biggest sufferer and some underlying metal showing through, but in the circumstances we got off remarkably lightly with only superficial damage. There appeared to be no cracks or signs of stress which the haul out in Raiatea confirmed. Thank goodness once more for a boat built to withstand heavy usage, including an all too close encounter with a reef.

Although this experience is now inevitably bound to remain uppermost in our minds and be our memory of the Gambier to Raivavae journey, we should note however Mike’s prowess in catching and landing our biggest fish by far, to date. I was woken in the morning by the rhythmic thumping of something large and heavy above my head striking on the back deck. Emerging into the early morning sunshine, I was met by the bloody sight of Mike tussling with a huge Mahi Mahi which he was endeavouring to kill and which remained equally stubbornly in the land of the living. The whole area was spattered with blood as the fish thrashed this way and that, but the magnificent specimen with its large erect vivid blue dorsal fin was by now starting to lose its glorious iridescent golden colour. Whilst thinking of the number of fish meals it would yield there were also concerns of how to keep the fish fresh without refrigeration. The Mahi-Mahi is a magnificent fish in all its golden glory but this was also a sad moment to see such a beautiful creature meet its end and lose its colour. Just so that Mike can’t tell a “tall” fisherman’s story, I measured it and even without exaggeration it reached an impressive 45″ from tip of nose to tip of tail, quite a catch!

 

One that didn’t get away and yes it’s chilly out of the tropics if only just.

For the next two days we had a surfeit of fish but as we discovered, it really doesn’t keep very well without a fridge! The big dish of ceviche made on Day 1 stretched into Day 2 but the uncooked fish wasn’t a good idea for lunch and we both suffered a strange bout of itching, numbness and stomach upset following our fourth meal on the trot of Mahi Mahi. In retrospect, the unexpected demise of the curry which had been prepared for meals five and six was probably the safest outcome, if not the most fragrant or decorative way to use it. As the cooling saucepan of spicy mixture tossed backwards and forwards across the galley flinging its contents in all directions, on the night of the “close encounter”, it coated everything in its path. As well as adhering firmly in yellow fibrous patches to the ceiling, retexturing the undersides of the shelves and cupboards and gluing together cookery books, it even managed to find its way through the finger holes onto the contents within the galley cupboards and the whole area took on the pungent aroma of an Indian takeaway!
Our arrival in the calm and picturesque anchorage in Raivavae on that fateful morning of the 20th May will be easily remembered, it was Mike’s birthday and not just any birthday, it was his 70th, what a way to celebrate! Our arrival was more than welcome relief from the early morning traumas and once The Red Thread followed us safely through the reef and dropped anchor alongside, we all set off together to find the Gendarmerie and report in. Antoine, the most friendly policeman you could hope to find welcomed us, took our particulars, showed us the visitors book which had been started in 1959 and was still going strong with just a few yachts calling over the years at this remote island, and presented us with a welcoming supply of grapefruit.

  
The anchorage at Raivavae

With the help of Jessie and Neil the day was salvaged and the evening turned into a birthday celebration on The Red Thread. They produced a lovely meal (fish again but this time the tuna they had landed) and they even rustled up a birthday banner just so there was no doubt about the number!

The island has a tiny population, reputedly 500 in the two main villages, again just hamlets surrounding a single street with a church, small shop (“sorry no eggs, fruit or veg but there will be more when the boat comes in in a week’s time”!), the smart but fairly useless Mairie, an infirmary and surprisingly a small Internet cafe where the local young women were keeping up to date with Facebook! 

  
Some of the islands fearsome animals! 

As we walked along the “highway” we were accosted by Edmond on his scooter wanting to know where we had come from. We discovered that Edmond, “everyone knows me as La Boudet” who was a gregarious and very chatty 78 year old French resident kept himself busy and in pocket money with his little market garden producing greens for the nearby pensions. He had some bags of lettuce and cucumber swinging from his handlebars and told us that if we would like to come to his house in the next village (very specific instructions given all the way to the village) the following day (Sunday) we could buy some much needed vegetables and, better still, why not come for lunch as well. That was an invitation we couldn’t refuse, and so paddling the kayak around the headland to the next bay, armed with a gift bottle of rum, we went in search of Edmond and an anticipated Sunday lunch. As it turned out however Edmond had forgotten about our invitation stating he had had his lunch at 11.00 and was taking a nap when we arrived. His little house, typical it seems of many men on their own, had few frills and comforts but it suited him. He regaled us with his history and many black and white photos of his time in the French army in Djibouti, followed by his service in Polynesia where he settled and married and had remained for the past 60 odd years. We did eventually get our vegetables from his garden and some more grapefruit and bananas courtesy of Edmond’s neighbour – the grapefruit are widely grown but it seems that they are not eaten by the locals – strange, when they are by far the largest, sweetest, tastiest and most juicy that we have ever eaten. 
I spotted a basil plant growing at the roadside edge of a garden on the way back to the boat so we scrumped fresh herbs for dinner and when these ran out Mike was sent off on the kayak as a dusk raiding party to get some more for the spaghetti bolognese we were sharing with Jessie and Neil off The Red Thread. As he approached the house he could see the family sitting in the garden but by now it was fully dark and he couldn’t find the bush on a casual pass. So he tried a second pass getting his nose closer to the plants when a little boy of about six popped out of the drive and asked him “what are you doing”. He must have looked very strange peering into the undergrowth in the dark and said stupidly because it was the first thing that came into his head “I’m looking at your garden”. He was asked quite reasonably “why?” Mike was stumped for an answer and beat a hasty retreat down the road only creeping back when the coast seemed clear. Well he couldn’t come back and say he had failed in his mission, could he!? This time he found a basil bush by smell, grabbed a handful and got back to the kayak without being discovered. Mission accomplished!

  

Raivavae from the top of Mount Hiro taken by Jessie and Neil

Jessie and Neil of The Red Thread had suggested to us that we might like to experience a “sleep over” on their boat whilst we motored around the island inside the reef to the “swimming pool”, an apparently spectacular snorkelling area on the far side of the island. We were more than happy to leave Romano safely at anchor under the watchful eye of Antoine, the policeman, and we set off in sunshine to explore new waters. By the time we reached the other side of the island, the sun had given way to clouds and the visibility was not at its best. It soon became apparent that this had not been an all together good idea while we skirted and avoided one coral head after another, trying to find a good passage. As the good light finally gave up all together we anchored as best we could, Neil checked the anchor (swam over it) and we hoped for a quiet night. As the wind changed direction, and in the dark, we swung with it and there was that nasty, dreaded moment when we came into contact with a previously hidden coral head. Surrounded as we were by numerous other coral heads, it was impossible to move in the dark and the only solution was to take in some of the chain to pull us away from the offending pinnacle and put out a second bow anchor to hold us firmly in place. This is difficult enough in daylight but in the dark it was a feat of willpower and trust. As Jessie and I let off and adjusted the lines from the bow, Neil rowed the dinghy with Mike and the second anchor out to an angle from the first anchor chain and dropped the second anchor overboard. The whole exercise worked well and we were able to relax with the offending coral head now some way off our stern.
The following morning we were anticipating a thrilling snorkelling trip, instead we awoke to cloudy skies, a threat of high winds and imminent rain squalls. Neil decided that our anchored position was unreliable to say the least and the best course of action would be to get out of there asap. This was another test of “eyeball” navigation back through numerous coral heads, but this time with the added obstacle of hard, driving rain. Jessie and I on the bow took it in turns to wipe our glasses but after five minutes even that was a waste of time as we took on the appearance of drowned rats ready for the wet t-shirt competition! Finally, we successfully cleared the rock strewn area but not without a lot of tension, stress and curses – coral reefs are beautiful but at depths substantially lower than the keel! The benefits of such clear water are mixed – brilliant snorkelling but whilst motoring along it’s impossible, apart from the colour graduations, to assess accurate depths.
We returned to our original anchorage and we’re all happy to leave the boat safely whilst we went by dinghy to a nearby Motu (coral island) and explored and collected shells on the beach, followed by an interesting and stress free snorkel nearby. Getting back into the dinghy though was something else and both I and Mike had to be unceremoniously heaved and pushed back over the side like a couple of sacks of potatoes – oh to be young and flexible again!

  
Jessie trying out some Polynesian head ware, not sure if it will catch on in Seattle



We had decided to hire bikes and tour the island and the following day when the sun returned four vintage bone shakers duly appeared outside the Gendarmerie and we each chose our model. They all had back brakes operated by back pedalling and it soon became obvious that I’m no longer coordinated enough to either get started or stop and before the circumnavigation of 22 kms was completed I had been spilled twice from my ancient steed. Miraculously, the dozen eggs in the front basket withstood the shock better than I did and remained intact. I was also blessed with a flat tyre, fortunately only a couple of miles from home, which gave me the excuse not to mount up again. The tour de Raiavavae was another lovely day out though giving us the chance to appreciate more beautiful coastline, pretty churches and poke around in a couple more tiny shops where we revelled in our finds of the day – eggs and potatoes.

  
The Intrepids!

We would have loved to linger longer on this beautiful island but the boatyard called and knowing that the sooner we could get the work done, the sooner we could continue to explore Polynesia with peace of mind. The weather window promised us good easterly winds for the few days needed to reach Raiatea in the Society Islands and so the decision was made to leave the next day, Saturday 28th May. A last visit to the Internet cafe, a trip to the shop to discover what had arrived with the visiting ship that morning (carrots, cabbage and apples) and goodbye to our friends and the friendly Gendarme and at 2.00pm we weighed anchor and headed out through the reef.
It seems that no passage is destined to go completely smoothly and this one was no exception. With lumpy seas which tossed us unkindly and uncomfortably from side to side, we spent the first day or so hanging on as every cross wave heeled the boat. Mike had gone to bed and I was clearing up the galley on my watch (I suppose I should have thoroughly washed the floor first and cleaned up the greasy chicken fat from our roast dinner but that was on the list to follow the oven cleaning!). An extra powerful lurch threw me skating backwards at speed, breaking through the galley restraining strap and thudding into the wooden pole by the companionway. I spent the next hour resting on the floor where I had fallen, clutching the back of my bleeding head with a large depression at the base of my skull. Fortunately, the depression gradually filled back out with the application of copious amounts of that wonder cream, Arnica and I was able to return to my watch duties. All in the name of that sport called sailing! As the skipper was kind enough to point out, just a small bang on the head and a little scratch, nothing to make a fuss about! 

We are now safely ashore with the boat on the hard and receiving tlc from what appears (touch wood) to be an efficient local workforce. The prop is out, the fibreglass work to the keel has been started and the fridge man has ordered the replacement parts – yippee – in another two weeks or so we should be back in the water with everything repaired and working – fingers crossed! It’s still amazing to us that the keel took such a pounding and seeing other boats in the yard which have suffered similar misfortunes with far greater damage, we know how lucky we are.

  
Romano being lifted at Raiatea Carenage for some much needed TLC.  

Our next post will be our time in The Society Islands and hopefully this will be a little less stressful.

A Bumpy ride to the Gambier

On Wednesday 13th April, we had returned to Hanga Roa from the little anchorage on the south of Easter Island where we claimed protection from the westerly winds. Leaving the island wasn’t going to be as easy as we had anticipated. Following a couple of days of westerly winds the swell into the Hanga Roa anchorage was to say the least uncomfortable and we rolled continually and violently from one side to the other. Just transferring from the boat to the dinghy was a major feat of balance and timing, with the sea pounding and both vessels thumping up and down and thrashing from side to side. Mike’s entreaties to just jump as Romano and the dinghy drew for an instant roughly level in passing were not helpful!

Whether we liked it or not, we couldn’t leave without checking out and the authorities had to be informed upfront that the skipper at least would be coming in at an appointed hour to complete the usual departure formalities. I took one look at the crashing waves and foaming surf rushing into the harbour entrance and decided on the cowardly option, staying on board to keep an eye on the boat! Knowing that our outboard was no match for the speed of the waves, Mike begged a lift from our young American friends, Jessie and Neil of The Red Thread who were also going to check out and with their more powerful engine hoped that they could make a run for it. (We have since spoken to a couple who pitchpoled into the harbour with the engine still running and they were both flung out into an area strewn with rocks – fortunately neither they nor the dinghy were damaged). Apparently it was a hair raising (literally) trip as they rode the top of a wave and Mike experienced some seconds of levitation, suspended in space to drop back heavily onto his seat.  
The following day, with all formalities completed and final provisioning done we used up the last of our Chilean money on expensive vegetables and fruit and waited for Jessie and Neil to return from ashore. We finally pulled up the anchor and chain plus all the extra chain we had put down for the deep anchorage and both boats literally sailed off into the sunset on 14th April on just their jibs for the 1,200 miles to Pitcairn and the further 300 miles to the Gambier.  
  
The Red Thread setting off.

The first few days went well with 15-20 knots of wind and we skipped along nicely on jib only – so much easier than having to deal with two sails especially at night! We kept pace and in daily radio contact with The Red Thread and it was comforting to know there were other beings out there in an otherwise very empty sea. After a couple of nights we adapted to a new regime of 6 hourly watches – I opted for the 8-2 slot propping up my eyelids for what seemed like an interminable time on duty – cups of tea, biscuits and a book all helped to pass the hours with the obligatory log taking every three hours, checking the course, the sails and weather, etc in between.  

As we approached to within 150 miles of Pitcairn it became apparent that we weren’t going to have an easy run to get there as we tried without success to hold the course. The weather was worsening and the forecast wasn’t good and we needed calm seas to have any hope of landing. As we have since discovered only a handful of boats actually manage to make landfall in Pitcairn, it’s a tiny island of only 2 miles by 1 mile with no good, protected anchorage. We have also now discovered that the price you pay to be collected and taken ashore by their own launches is the rather hefty sum of $50 per person per journey and then once ashore they ask $60 for the privilege of stepping on their 2 x 1 piece of terrain. With ideas of taking “goodies” for the poor stranded locals we weren’t altogether sorry to have given the island a miss.
Apart from the difficult nature of anchoring off of Pitcairn, both vessels had their own problems. The Red Thread, like us, had developed starter motor problems and with no guarantee of a reliable engine and bad weather in the offing, Pitcairn wasn’t an attractive anchorage. We, on the other hand, had sabotaged our own boat. In the first of the storms we encountered, whilst Mike’s attention was fully taken up in dealing with the kayak and its determined efforts to make a break for it, the chain and warp for the second anchor slipped out of its holding bag on the bow and poured over the side, still attached but streaming back under the boat. The inevitable happened and when later in the day after no sunshine, the engine was started to boost the batteries, it spluttered for thirty seconds and went dead. There was an initial feeling of horror and incredulity – “now what” – with big seas and rapidly loosing the light, the realisation that we had a rope wrapped around the prop, was not a prospect to be relished. There was only one solution, the rope had to be cut and fingers crossed that nothing had seriously damaged the engine or the prop. Mike’s initial reaction was to go under with a snorkel and mask but daylight was running out and the chance of him being able to hold his breath and safely negotiate the underside of the boat whilst it rose and fell and careered along at speed were not realistic. So, out came the hookah and it was put to work for the first time in earnest with Mike attached to it and the boat. Firstly, he wanted to save what he could of the chain and rope and once attached to a line we secured it back to the boat for later retrieval from the sea. In near darkness, he dived again and managed to cut the rope freeing up the prop whilst I tugged on the attached rope by which he was tethered to the boat. As the stern of the boat bounced up and down with the boarding ladder rising and falling and threatening at every moment to knock him out, Mike eventually managed to re-board Romano in one piece but exhausted and minus one fin which had gone its own way. I have to admit that I had been reluctant to go down the transom in the tossing seas (as suggested) and rescue the fins, but I reasoned that two of us in the water would have just doubled the problem!
With the chain and remaining warp cranked back on board, it was with relief that the key was turned in the ignition and after an initial hesitation the engine came to life. You would think, wouldn’t you, that this was enough to handle in one day. Firstly the kayak, breaking free from its support to bash repeatedly against the side of the boat with every breaking wave and having to be securely lifted and lashed using two halyards and several hank’s of rope, just a little bit the worst for wear but safe at least. But now, the real problem began and as I switched on the light in the head I was met by the slosh of water in the shower area. The bilge was full and the next horror emerged, none of the three bilge pumps, electric or manual, worked. Thank goodness for spares, a new pump was hastily installed and the water level rapidly reduced to inspect the next problem. A steady trickle through the prop shaft kept us on our toes running the bilge pump every hour day and night and with the weather as it was there was no chance of Mike returning under the boat to inspect the damage further.
Problems on a boat don’t seem to come singly or even in twos, they jostle to pour in, one attracting the next – someone out there was having fun at our expense! The next morning, the fridge was unusually warm, in other words it had given up after too much salt water in its vicinity. Opening the freezer with trepidation and little hope, it was obvious that it had joined its mate and given up on the freezing job with the ice falling off the plates. At that point the meat was still frozen solid but experience told us that a few days was all we would get before the fishes would be dining extremely well or we would have to cook everything with little hope of being able to keep anything for very long. A three day chicken stew made in the pressure cooker didn’t kill us and most of the rest of the meat made it to Mangareva in the Gambier and into The Red Thread’s fridge.
The Gods had not finished with us and it was obvious that they wanted us to experience a real “blow”. The second storm which the weather files had predicted would pass south of us, hit us with a vengeance and after a day of unpleasant, driving and surprisingly cold rain, the winds gradually increased, we are told as our anemometer is not working, to around the 45+ knots mark. Just poking our heads above the spray hood threw us staggering back into the cockpit and ducking for cover. The roar and whistling in the rigging was scary but Romano with just a tiny handkerchief of main and a whisker of staysail rode the waves like the true blue water aristocrat she is and lived up to her reputation. It was good to have our confidence confirmed in her abilities to cope with the conditions. We were surprised and pleased too that in such extreme conditions, the hydrovane wind steering gear coped brilliantly and needed very little attention despite the 15 feet waves which we crested and rode with ease, holding our course for hour after hour.  
We arrived with relief off the Gambier Islands and headed for the channel into the protection of the reef. “We haven’t finished with you yet”, those Gods again! At the first red buoy on the entrance through the reef, the engine suddenly started overheating. The engine water cooling pump impeller died and thank goodness the change to new one doesn’t take as long as in some other boats. Whilst I turned her bow away from the reef, Mike swiftly fitted a new impeller and we turned once more into the channel. Meantime, Jessie and Neil who had arrived several hours earlier than us but with a suspect engine, had decided to hove to for the night and in the continuing storm conditions had drifted some miles back out to sea. We were safely on the anchorage when they arrived and with relief they dropped their anchor on the bottom near us. We had discussed the possibility of us towing them in if their engine failed to start and thank goodness it had not been necessary – their engine with assistance of a hammer had roared into life and they safely entered the lagoon – with our own engine problems we would have had difficulty towing them through the narrow and tortuous channel for the two hours it took to pass through the reefs.
  
Tiki tea from the boat

Rikitea the town (or one street village) on the island of Mangareva is a picture-perfect Polynesian anchorage, a lush palette of greens and profusion of colours with all the textures you can imagine, trees of every hue and shape with tidy colourful houses hugging the sandy shoreline, backed by high craggy mountains. The village, the economy of which is sustained by its world famous black pearl industry, is very obviously wealthy in a Polynesian way, everyone is well fed, well clothed and with so many four by fours for a one street village, you wonder how pearls alone support the lifestyle. There is no evidence of poverty or deprivation and the cost of everything is well in excess of anything we have found anywhere else on our travels.

As always our first visit is to check in – to the tiny village Gendermerie where the formalities were minimal, we are European, so for us not even a stamp in the passport. As Americans, Jessie and Neil had a little more to do, but all completed with smiles and easygoing officialdom. Then a visit to the post office to change money – Euros to local francs no problem, but US dollars, no way! The young lady behind the counter was charming and helpful and as viewed in the village, the white frangipani flower behind her ear was a normal accoutrement to local female dress. The street was flanked by trees and shrubs of every description, fruit and flowers in abundance and we had been told that you only have to ask and the locals would be happy to give you whatever they have growing in their gardens. Seeing grapefruit the size of small footballs lying rotting on the ground (apparently not sweet enough for the locals), Jessie and I approached the homeowner and asked if we could buy some fruit (after being told they would be freely given) and together with a hand of bananas were taken aback when the lady asked for 1500 francs (the equivalent of about £10) for the bananas and six grapefruit but having asked and filled our bags, we had no alternative but to pay up. So much for free fruit! We vowed to go scrumping after that! Later we were overwhelmed by the kindness of people who were happy to let us try breadfruit, load us with grapefruit and bananas and their own special dishes.
We had conveniently anchored just off the one and only local restaurant which also had wifi. We discovered that our first meal there was a fluke of timing – they were actually open and that day with one of the two monthly cargo ships having just unloaded they had the ingredients to concoct a meal. After that, we were either too late turning up at 1.30, there were no vegetables, it had been too rough for the fishermen to go out or there was a barbecue in the village so not worth opening. Nevertheless, they were always happy for us to buy a beer (at the inflated price of £3.50) and use the Internet so we parked the dinghy on their beach and sat on their jetty with our iPads.
Inevitably, the first few days were spent working on boat repairs and trying to rectify problems. The fridge and freezer were non-starters and we had to come to terms with warm everything, milk that soured overnight and runny butter and cheese. Thanks to Jessie and Neil, we managed to salvage the majority of the meat and ate together for the first week demolishing all we could. The biggest problem though was the prop shaft and with help and advice from various cruisers, Mike and Neil with the help of the hookah system sealed the cutless bearing with underwater epoxy and stopped the leak and refined the bearing which we hoped would last us through to the inevitable haul out in Tahiti to rectify the damage.  
On Sunday we dressed up to join what seemed like a large percentage of the population for the morning service in the imposing Rikitea cathedral. The cathedral was built in the 19th century by a notorious French priest, Pere Laval, who virtually enslaved the local people, decimating the population through his ambitious religious construction works. The cathedral, as with numerous other churches on this tiny group of islands, was built from blocks of coral hewn at the expense of many lives. The nunnery was also responsible for influencing the population numbers – in one instance it took 200 young girls from their families, all in the name of religion. From a healthy population of thousands, the Catholic Church succeeded in reducing the numbers to a mere 500. It was interesting to observe and listen to the service and to wonder at the still devout local people, all dressed in smart local or up-to-date clothes, many of the women and even some little girls sporting the wealth of these islands in strings of the local “gold” – black pearls – with flowers tucked behind their ears and leis around their necks. Whilst the sermon and events were conducted in a monotonous and monosyllabic French, the singing with accompanying “words board” was in the much more joyful Polynesian tongue.
  
All dressed up in our Sunday best for church

After days of work and frustrations, we took time off to see something of the island and set off over the ridge to the bay on the other side of the island, admiring the views and lush and varied vegetation as we walked. The profusion of flowers and colourful shrubs (exotic plants to us which we would handle with care in a greenhouse) grow here like unruly weeds. On the far side of the island we followed the coastline with its shallow reefs stretching out to the little pearl farms dotted just offshore. We hadn’t gone far before we were accosted by an old lady who insisted that we load up with grapefruit and bananas from her garden and then presented us with her speciality of mango and tapioca jelly with coconut cream – an interesting experience trying to eat jelly with your fingers, but finger-licking good all the same! Rather than return the way we had come and stick to the road we followed the rough track back over the mountain, which we were assured wouldn’t take us more than an hour – that must have been goat timing or a vague memory from childhood as we slipped and slithered up the muddy path to finally reach the summit and finally arrived exhausted back in Rikitea several hours later.

  
Gill sampling tapioca and mango pudding with coconut cream

Unquestionably the most memorable part of our stay in Mangareva was a visit to a family-run pearl farm. Along with Jessie and Neil, Sven and Lisa a Swedish couple and Ari and Mariel, (Dutch doctors) we crossed once more to the other side of the island and were transported to one of the offshore farms for an instructive couple of hours, seeing and learning about the process of implanting, retrieving and marketing black pearls. Polynesia is famous for these particular pearls and in particular Gambier with its ideal lagoon conditions is the producer of the finest quality which are exported worldwide and which make this island a wealthy community.

  
Seeding the pearls in the oyster

 The owner, Michel, and his sons were charming, allowing us to interrupt their work and encouraging us to try our hands. We were all thrilled and touched when Michel said “pick an oyster” and as the girl delicately removed the contained pearl, we were each given our own generous memento. I was particularly delighted when mine emerged – it’s a beautiful and highly valued “green” variant, a very special keepsake indeed. The colours range from near black to silver grey to green, blue and black tinged with rose pink, all imparted from the oyster shell they inhabit.
  
Michel the owner of the pearl farm

It’s always sad to up anchor and say goodbye to a new, but by now somewhat familiar place but the weather forecast was favourable to move on and we wanted to spend a few days at the nearby island of Taravai before leaving the island group. Our only concern was the depth into the anchorage – we were going to scrape over the reef by a small margin at high tide. And scrape in we did but only after a second attempt with the depth alarm going off every few yards and holding our breath we arrived safely off our second Gambier island. We had been enticed here by three young English boys, Jess, John and Dan, we met in Mangareva who had crossed from the UK in Sparrow, their 26′ boat and were now house-sitting for three months for the French owners of one of the only three homes on the island. They were delighted to have room to move and the luxury of their own rooms after the months of confinement in such a small space. They had promised us fresh fruit and vegetables and that together with the chance to meet up again with their neighbours, Herve, his charming Tahitian wife Valerie and little son Ariki was something we couldn’t resist.  

  
Jesse, Jon and Dan in their garden with Dior the horse

We joined the boys for an evening barbecue of freshly speared fish and ceviche in coconut cream and we were very impressed by their newly acquired skills in subsistence living. In exchange for their comfortable beds and home on the beach, they were caring for a menagerie of escaping pigs, uncooperative chickens, a dog having a phantom pregnancy and a totally schizophrenic horse which had, for some reason, been imported from Australia to this tiny, paradise island. Paradise always has a price though, and here it was the swarms of persistent mossies which welcomed the new meat with alacrity despite our powerful bug spray.  

  
Dior joining in at dinner

As we walked from the boys’ home to Herve’s house a few hundred yards away, we marvelled at the abundant “food” supply growing wild en route – bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, grapefruit, oranges, lemons and much more, even coffee which the boys intended to roast for their own consumption. Herve had a small business going in pig meat. We had first met him in Mangareva when he had tried to persuade us to buy from him but at the time we were too busy trying to eat up the contents of our defunct freezer. We now saw first hand his piggery and the remaining inhabitants – the rest were in Herve’s large freezer – and we were now able to relieve him of a very succulent chunk of pork.  

  
Great big juicy grapefruit

The waters around Taravai were some of the clearest we’ve seen and the opportunity to see the reef was clearly not to be missed. Mike and I paddled the kayak and Neil rowed his dinghy to an area of breaking water off rocks where Neil speared some suitable fish for dinner and we admired the prolific fish life and colourful corals. Mike was excited to see his first sharks, white and black tipped reef sharks which, fortunately, were far less interested in us than we were in them.
Although we were all a little uneasy about the date, Friday 13th, we agreed that with the promise of a good SE wind it was time to leave the Gambier and head for Raivavea in the Austral islands. So, another sad farewell but with the anticipation of the next adventure, 750 miles (or about 6 days sailing if the weather is kind to us) to our west, we picked our way cautiously back over the reef and out into the channel and set our sights on our next destination in French Polynesia.

Easter at Easter Island

It was appropriate that after twenty-seven days at sea we arrived off Easter Island before dawn on the Thursday before Easter. With the lights of the island spotted some way off during the night, we approached Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, whilst still dark and hove to for a couple of hours until the sun appeared and we could comfortably make our entrance into the hazardous anchorage.
The departure from Panama City had been a whirlwind of preparation and buying trips. Rich, our American friend and extra crew member arrived on 17th February and the extra pair of hands was immediately put to use, fixing, carrying, loading. Mike was still experiencing problems with the SSB and having checked every part of the system eventually had no option but to call in the experts who identified the fault and hurrah we had a fully functional system at last. The new AIS also gave some headaches and never did get installed, so, in desperation and frustration, it was back to the old unit albeit that all its finer functions are no longer operational. On a personal note, both Mike and I had to visit the local dentist – he to have his newly fitted in Colon, expensive bridge re-inserted and me to have an extraction – just thought that tooth might give me problems en route, so out it had to come.
Our last visit was to the duty free shop in Flamenco to stock up on wine, beer and rum. No drinking whilst underway of course but lots of time sitting at anchor admiring beautiful sunsets were envisioned in the future.
The anchor was weighed at La Playita (Panama) at 7.30am on 26th February and after an initial hiccup with the fan belt we headed for the Perlas Islands, just a day’s sail away (Mike and I had spent two lovely weeks there the month before). We needed to clean the bottom after the weeks in what must be one of the dirtiest anchorages we have used. The hull could only be described as quite disgusting, not only despite the Coppercoat antifouling liberally coated in wall to wall barnacles, but covered in a curtain of green slimy weed and brown gunge and infested with clinging, biting, tenacious sea lice. We all emerged covered from head to foot in the unwanted creatures with teeth chattering (the water was unusually cold) and were glad to recuperate with a hot shower and a warming rum.
So, that was it, the bottom was ready to go and so were we. After a final clean up and checks there was nothing more to keep us and taking advantage of a good breeze, we set sail for Easter Island on the afternoon of 27th February.
We can’t claim to have had an adventurous sail from Panama – the weather was very kind to us and apart from a few days wallowing in the doldrums whilst we drifted across the Equator, for the most part we achieved a daily average of 120-150 miles per day. With three crew onboard watch keeping was eased and we stood 4 hours each night on a rotating basis, no one liked the 12 to 4 watch as this meant a night of broken sleep. It was also good having Rich to help out with general maintenance – he is skipper of his own boat Kelly-Rae on which we sailed in Maine in June last year. Mike had originally met Rich in Guatemala when sitting out the hurricane season in 2014. 
As well as our own weather forecasts from the radio, we were grateful for the weather updates for the area from the Panama Net and this amazing facility, thanks to our now fully operational SSB, reached us as far as 10 degrees south of the Equator. We listened with frustration to commiserations from the Net operator as we were told that the ITCZ was stretching daily further and further south, ie no wind. One bonus though was the dip we took at 3,000 metres into the clearest, bluest water imaginable and whilst the boat rocked gently and went nowhere we swam alongside. Finally, the south-east Trade Winds arrived and we held our breath, were they just a fluke or were they really the Trades?! From then on we sailed on a beam reach for the rest of the journey, a mostly comfortable trip without any sailing problems.  
With no moon for the first half of our journey, the nights were as black as ink with no discernible delineation between the sky and the sea. With no ambient light the star show though was incredible and the Milky Way stretched brightly across the sky and the Southern Cross pointing our way was clearly visible. We often saw dolphins during the day playing and jumping by the boat and at night were aware of their presence, blowing and squeaking alongside us. We think we heard whales too but it was much too dark to see. 
No trip would be complete, it seems, without untoward problems and of course, we weren’t going to be let off that lightly. It became apparent very early on that the repaired water maker wasn’t working – the membrane had given up so we were reduced to rationing and monitoring our usage – no more showers until we reached land! (Echoes of the Atlantic crossing).   
I remarked on several occasions to Mike that I could smell gas (even got him up one night during my watch when the smell wafted up into the cockpit) but neither he nor Rich could smell anything, nor more importantly, could our trusty “electronic sniffer”. All very odd, but I know gas when I smell it so continued to sniff and guess what, eventually the “sniffer” agreed with me. We had a faulty connection under the new oven. The other olfactory experience was the smell of burning from the solar panels regulator when they were pumping in the midday sun – a problem still not fixed but the regulator now has its own dedicated fan to keep it cool and happy.
The unexplained small water leak in the bilge still persists despite every through hull fitting being checked, every pipe and so on. We still have no clue what it is, just that gremlin again, so until the boat comes out of the water we shall probably be none the wiser, we just keep pumping out!
Cooking is always a problem whilst sailing especially heeled to one side or the other. Slamming into cupboards or throwing ourselves over the oven we all suffered our fair share of discomfort and bruises. We were glad of our new (secondhand) bread maker and with plenty of solar energy and gas always needing to be conserved, fresh bread became a welcome addition to our diet. Mike has become quite the little baker turning out loaf after loaf, but again not without its learning curve. Trying to balance the precariously small based loaf pan whilst heeling and adding the various ingredients bit by bit was an accident waiting to happen – and it did. As we all know, water and flour make paste and it liberally plastered itself throughout the galley, around the oven, in the drawers and cupboards, you name it and once dry it isn’t the easiest thing to remove! The language from the galley was ripe!
There are obviously not many yachts arriving in remote Easter Island but we were surprised to find four others already at anchor and all had come around The Horn, making our trip from Panama seem tame in comparison. There was no danger that our arrival had been overlooked as we were in full view of the maritime cliff top building and the Harbour Master informed us that he and the other relevant officials would pay us a visit that morning. Sure enough a little after 11.00am a local launch arrived packed with officials – Immigration, Police, Navy, Health, Harbour, etc – we concluded it must be a special outing for them! They invaded the cockpit and we filled in the paperwork, answered questions, etc and I showed the young lady enquiring after our fruit supplies our nearly empty nets. She took the remainder of our grapefruit and oranges (although I must admit I didn’t admit to what remained of the few oranges from the half ton sack still in the forward berth) and Mike and I hurriedly ate our last two remaining precious apples. Afterwards we were told that she should have requested any fresh meat – she didn’t, and thank goodness because we are, even now, still enjoying meat from the freezer bought in Panama.

  
Hanga Roa looking over the anchorage

After only one day in Hanga Roa and a quick visit to shore in the afternoon, we were informed that the weather was changing and we should head north to the protected anchorage off Anakena. Hanga Roa’s anchorage is a good mile offshore where the surf breaks relentlessly over the rocks and we had anchored in 24 metres of water, crossing our fingers that the weight of our now extended chain would hold us firmly to the bottom. It had been quite an operation to add to our normal chain length with that normally reserved for the Fortress anchor (our second anchor) and now it all had to come up, be re-assigned and stowed. Never the less we decided to follow the others and motor sailed to Anakena which turned out to be a picture-perfect bay with a huge sandy beach, backed by palm trees and an impressive line of Moai statues. In the end we spent several days there, swimming, walking and exploring the area as well as getting to know our fellow sailors (a mixture of Swedes, Dutch, Americans, French and an interesting and gutsy Estonian girl who for her first sail had joined her new French boyfriend in Patagonia for the rounding of Cape Horn), during a barbecue evening. The barbecue and social was great, but the drenching I received from our untimely arrival in the surf at the beach wasn’t so welcome and from then on I made sure I always carried a change of clothes ashore, just in case!

  
The lovely beach at Anakena

With the change of the winds to the south-east, our little Armada left en masse to return to Hanga Roa. Rich decided to trek across country and meet us back in the town so Mike and I set off in pursuit of the other cruisers. The engine coughed to a start with smoke coming from the starter motor – the next problem had emerged. We couldn’t risk turning the engine off with the prospect of the deep anchorage ahead so sailing was out. Rounding the headland we bounced into the waves and the dinghy swung wildly from side to side rapidly filling with gallons of water. Even without the engine we still surged forward in the current at 4 knots so we did a quick about turn and Mike jumped into a rearing, half submerged dinghy to bail. Once emptied and tied tightly to the stern the dinghy remained close in our wake and we continued to Hanga Roa where we dropped all our chain once again.
The little town of Hanga Roa has only a small fishing harbour, the boats now mainly used for ferrying divers out into the clearest waters I have ever seen. The entrance to the harbour is precarious on a calm day with breakers rolling in and the surfers riding in alongside us and we have held our breath on several occasions as we rode the top of the wave between the rocks to arrive safely in the calm of the harbour or worse still going back out through the foaming crests. Fortunately, a wetting is all we got and nothing worse with all our shopping, water, etc on board. Once in the harbour we had to negotiate the cats cradle of ropes and clamber out onto the dock – once was enough for me at low water as I dangled over the edge not being able to pull myself up or drop back into the dinghy which by then had swung away. Finally, pushed up from behind I rolled unceremoniously onto the dirty concrete, not an elegant way to arrive so after that Mike dropped me at the other side of the harbour where the fishermen obligingly pulled me up the steps to safety.

  
The pretty harbour at Hanga Pika

The town itself is little more than one long street, dotted with clothes shops displaying colourful Polynesian wraps, dresses, tops, etc and small, basically supplied supermarkets with little cafes and bakeries selling delicious empanadas and wonderful cakes which we weren’t slow in savouring. Local fruit – papayas, pineapples, apples, oranges, mangoes and bananas – and all sorts of vegetables were readily available from the market and from the backs of trucks along with the meat truck with the flies being kept at bay by the lady with a large leafy fan. Our favourite spot (or mine anyway) had to be the ice-cream parlour overlooking the harbour with its rich and unusual flavours of homemade concoctions – papaya and orange, mandarin and passion fruit – my idea of heaven!
One of our concerns was that our gas would run out long before we reached Tahiti and neither Pitcairn nor the small French Polynesian islands are likely candidates for refills. So Rich and I went in search of a supply, following instructions to the edge of town, and beyond. Having walked some distance without seeing a likely source and looking lost as only strangers can, a smiling lady asked if she could help and telling us to wait 5 minutes said she would be back. She returned in her car and not only drove us to the propane supplier but elbowed her way through the waiting queue and took us to see our options. Having been told previously that only the huge household sized tanks were available we were relieved to find something we could fit on board, albeit that this larger tank, together with the last one bought in Panama have to sit on top of the chain and be lifted in and out of the locker before we can anchor – a small price to pay for cooked food! Veronica generously offered her services once again if we needed them but a lift was readily offered by yet another kind local with truck when the guys returned later to buy the tank and transport it back to the harbour.
We ambled along the open cliff top dotted with Moais and freely roaming horses – there are hundreds around the island and until recently they were apparently the main means of transport. We wandered through and admired the little cemetery with its ornate and decorated graves (mostly with artificial flowers but one was covered in a rambling tomato plant and when I remarked on it to a local lady, she replied that the incumbent had been a farmer – that seems logical!). Another sported an empty rum bottle! We spent a couple of interesting hours in the little museum reading up on the history and culture of the island and mused that its ancient customs and peculiarities seemed very close to that of the Maoris.
It was decided that we needed further exercise so we hired bicycles for a few hours and I was grateful for the gentle inclines and the well maintained bikes. At Ahu Akivi we saw the only set of Moais which do not have their backs to the sea, a peculiarity which remains unexplained. Returning to Hanga Roa we were waylaid by a brief visit to the tiny but exquisitely laid out Botanical Gardens which without much advertising and tucked away as it is we fear probably does not attract many visitors to admire the work of the one industrious gardener who appears to do everything.
Still not knowing if we were likely to be detained in Easter Island for any length of time waiting for a starter motor but hoping with fingers crossed that Volvo Santiago would have one in stock (which fortunately they did and flew it in within days to us), 

  
The new starter which got to us despite the lack of address

Rich suddenly dropped the bombshell that he had decided to leave us and fly to Chile for a month’s holiday before returning to the US. We were totally gob-smacked as he had promised to stay until Tahiti and his reasons for leaving seemed unlikely. But that’s crew for you!!! So we are now back to just the two of us and the prospect of less sleep!
Mike and I still wanted to see the rest of the island and it was a matter of fitting it in around installing the starter motor and weather but with Saturday seeming like the last opportunity we hired a car for the day and set off around the island.  
Orongo is probably one of the most historically famous and spectacular sights perched as it is on the top of the volcano Ranokau overlooking on one side the sea 250 metres below and the crater on the other. In the 19th century, the yearly custom was for the tribe to move to Orongo where they had built 54 low stone houses with tiny square apertures to squeeze through just to keep their few possessions during that period. The Chiefs nominated their Hopus (underlings) to swim across the adjoining passage to the far islet to collect the first Tern’s egg of the season and return plus egg, climb the steep cliffs back and present the egg to his Chief who would then be the “chosen one” for the rest of the year, living in idle luxury (of the period!) Seeing as the islet of Motu Nui is a fair distance from Easter Island with rough, shark infested waters and strong currents and the cliffs look like a climber’s nightmare you have to wonder what the penalties were for saying “no” to the order to go fetch an egg!
We continued around the island to see the highlight of the Moai collection at Tongariki (15 enormous statues which have been renovated and replaced with help from the Japanese after being knocked off their pedestals during a tsunami some years back). Only one has retained his red scoria topknot or hat unfortunately and the others lay waiting to be replaced, maybe at a later date.

  
Impressive Moai’s at Tongariki

The last and probably one of the most impressive sights was the quarry where the statues were fashioned in situ. The slope of the volcano Ranokau Raraku is the quarry and the whole hillside is dotted with finished or partially finished Moais with many still attached to the rock face waiting to be finally released and somehow slid down the hillside. It’s not hard to imagine that after many months of patient work, many were lost as they toppled in an uncontrolled fall down the steep volcano sides – their remnants are still in evidence, including one which must have been the Daddy of them all at 21.8 metres tall.

  
The Quarry where all the Moai’s came from

As we drove back to Hanga Roa we could see the weather changing and the rain sweeping in and as we reached the town, the handheld radio burst into life with an anxious Port Captain warning us that we should leave the anchorage as soon as possible. We battled through the surf, drenched yet again and within half an hour we followed our fellow cruisers (only one other boat left now) down the coast and round the corner to a more protected anchorage where we anchored in the dark.
As I write this we are waiting for the winds to swing back to the SE so that we can continue our passage to Pitcairn in the company of a young American couple – it’s a large empty ocean down here and knowing that there are others out there is comforting.  
So from here we head for little-visited Pitcairn and thereafter French Polynesia – the Gambier, Tuomotus and Society Islands where once again we should be able to post a blog. Unfortunately, with Rich’s departure we can no longer produce the tracker. 

Panama – sea to sea

Having returned from our South American trip at the end of November, we were under the mistaken illusion that all that remained for us to do prior to setting off for the San Blas to meet up with my daughter, Rachel and family on 11th December, were a few remaining “little” jobs and provisioning for Christmas. Wrong again! As we neared the date and provisioned the boat to bursting with no free space left in lockers or cupboards, our spirits fell as the fridge went into decline, spluttered and gave up. Mike sped off towards Panama City in a taxi to obtain a spare part from a salesman at the halfway point, but typically Panamanian, he decided he would be late for dinner and didn’t turn up. The next day the whole thing was repeated and with the part in hand, the refrigeration engineer was entreated to fit us into his busy pre-Christmas schedule. To cut yet another long story short, the engineer fixed the fridge problem up to the moment of leaving, checked (or so we thought) the freezer and we set out for the San Blas together with a young German backpacker who had begged a lift from us.  
It’s unlikely that we shall ever again offer a free lift to a backpacker. He had no interest whatsoever in the boat or our entreaties to be careful with water, gas, etc. He spent most of the journey either in his cabin or lying at full stretch in the cockpit whilst we worked and handled the lines around him. Once in the Carti Islands he suggested that maybe he might stay with us a little longer whilst he worked out his onward journey to Colombia, not particularly difficult but maybe a little more than he wanted to pay. We found him a hostel and some alternative means of transport and said our sad farewells – we later heard that he reached Colombia unscathed.
Rachel and family were delivered to us at anchor after a breakneck 4×4 ride through the jungle to Carti from Panama City. We had decided to pay a flying visit to the Robson Islands where we had previously enjoyed a canoe trip up the river with Justino. Rachel and co followed in our path and received their initiation into the local canoe, island and jungle life of the Kuna Indians and after much hilarity and trepidation settled themselves into the narrow and unstable log canoe and enjoyed the experience.
Later that day, Rachel noticed that the food in the freezer seemed a little on the soft side. Here we go again – this time the freezer had packed up and packed with several hundreds of dollars of meat, including the precious Christmas turkey (sawn into two halves to go into the freezer and the oven) and a large ham. That sinking feeling yet again!!! Our options weren’t great – we could head straight back to Shelter Bay or try to find an alternative solution in the San Blas which seemed like a very long shot. We were advised on the radio net to take our meat to a local island restaurant and ask to use their freezer – we did just that and for the princely sum of $10 a day, after cooking up enough of the defrosting mince to last us several days, we left our Christmas fare in the unscrupulous hands of the local restaurant owner (they ate most of our chicken!!). Mike by sheer good fortune managed to locate an Italian refrigeration engineer in a nearby anchorage and we sped there to beg him to rescue us. Four days later we were in possession of a repaired freezer (new condenser which the engineer built to fit) and we were able to reclaim our depleted meat stocks from the restaurant.
In the meantime, I might add, life wasn’t too uncomfortable in the beautiful anchorage of the East Lemmons where we awaited the ministrations of the freezer rescuer, Rachel, Paul, Ella and Sam put our new two man (can stretch to four) kayak to good use and explored the reefs and became adept at snorkelling in turquoise waters.  
Naturally this being a boat, it wasn’t the end of our inconveniences (the regulator on the alternator packed up, limiting our power source) and we spent a frustrating 24 hours trying to top up our water whilst the Colombian supply boats took their time and commandeered the only jetty where we were able to obtain water – we finally tied up alongside the wooden Colombian hulk and precariously jumped the gap from us to them to the wall with the hose pipe stretching over everything. I think the boat guys enjoyed the jesting and flirting with 14 year old Ella although she, of course, was oblivious to the attention!!!
Although the family had generally withstood the winds and choppy waters of the islands, the long run back to Linton Bay on Christmas Eve proved to be just that bit too much for non-sailors. Following Christmas Day and Father Christmas’ visit to the pretty anchorage and a visit to meet the island monkeys who demanded their token gift of food before allowing anyone to set foot on land, the family decided to return to Shelter Bay with Joachim, our German friend. He had come by road to join us for Christmas lunch (but mysteriously disappeared to eat the much more appealing lamb offered by an Austrian couple rather than our delicious turkey). So on Boxing Day the family regained their land legs and Mike and I sailed the boat back to Shelter Bay.
We confirmed our schedule to go through the Canal on 28th and together with three other line handlers picked up the pilot as arranged and set out with much excitement and some anxious anticipation to tackle the first of the locks. Still in daylight, we followed a huge container ship into the Gatun locks and with lines on both sides kept Romano safely in the centre of the locks. We had worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that we would have problems, not be able to catch the lines thrown to us, have very little time to get the ropes in order or generally make a mess of our allotted tasks, but it all went like clockwork and with some gentle direction from our pilot we followed his instructions and arrived in Lake Gatun safely and unscathed. (We heard tales from others of horrifying incidents and accidents.). 
The pilot guided us in the dark to the large rubber buoy in the lake and after tying up for the night, the pilot boat glided alongside and Victor, our pilot of the day, left us. At 6.30 the following morning we were joined by Carlos and we set off across the vast man made Gatun Lake and the impressive Culebra Cut where for the next five hours we enjoyed the sights and appreciated the incredible engineering undertaking that the Canal had been.  
By now we were enjoying ourselves and reluctant to finish our crossing. Our exit from the Canal came with the three locks down to the Pacific and we entered the first of them followed by a huge car transporter which filled the lock. Their bow towered over us as they were slowly pulled by “mules” (mechanised) foot by foot within to what seemed like touching distance of us. We could hear the guy on the bridge saying “I can’t see them any more” as he talked to his colleague on the bow who, with walkie talkie in hand, guided the enormous ship ever closer to us. It’s a thrilling moment as, safely tied up, the locks fill or empty and you rise or fall as the swirling water empties or fills and you can only wonder at this modern day wonder which has withstood one hundred years of constant use. We were told that they close the locks (there are two lanes side by side) once a year for maintenance for maybe a week, but incredibly the 2 metre thick walls are still the originals as are the lock gates, all installed over one hundred years ago. Carlos, our pilot, was very pessimistic about the new canal and locks currently under construction for today’s larger ships, which are already late in their completion date and having leakage problems through bad construction. He forecasted that they would not last beyond five years before needing severe remedial work – a sad indictment of our modern systems and work ethics.
We fairly shot out of the last lock as the fresh waters rushed out to mix with the salt of the Pacific where an initial 5 knot current diminishes over a number of miles. The Pacific side of the Canal is badly served with marinas and anchorages and with little choice we put the anchor down in the rolly, noisy and none too clean anchorage of La Playita (at the end of the Causeway built with the spoil taken from the Canal excavations which joined several little islands to the mainland).  
After ordering more parts and devices and spending two weeks listening to the workboats roar their way in and out of the nearby marina, timing dinghy entrance and exits to the boat to avoid the mountainous wash of the passing traffic, watching the hundreds of Pelicans diving all around us and generally frying in the heat of the oppressive Panamanian climate, we decided to head for the Perlas Islands some 35 miles away and some peace and quiet.  
In our view, the Perlas are a much prettier group of islands than the San Blas. For starters they are blessed with hills and lush, varied greenery with plenty of trees, not just palm, as well as beautiful beaches. We anchored for a few days off of the lovely island of Contadora where we swam, snorkelled and explored ashore in search of coconuts. The harvest was pretty bleak as most of the time we discovered that man or crabs had beaten us to it, but we did manage to return to the boat with one or two. (Along with raisins, dried fruit and other nuts, I use the coconut, finely chopped and dried in the oven to supplement the local rather uninteresting muesli). The anchorage which lays between two islands isn’t great as we were at the mercy of a very strong current which made swimming off the boat precarious. I discovered very swiftly that it was stronger than I am when I jumped in to rescue a fly-away bowl and very quickly realised that swimming back to the boat wasn’t an option (and I wasn’t going to relinquish my hold on the bowl either!) Whilst weighing up the probability that I would be asking for asylum on the next boat downwind, Mike managed to throw me a rope and drag me back. Another afternoon, we again experienced the strength of the current when Mike proceeded to row us from shore back to the boat (we hadn’t put the outboard on the dinghy). He puffed and sweated profusely with just a few oaths before we finally made it back to safety and he could reach for a well earned beer.
We heard on the daily VHF net that very strong winds were about to hit us and decided to move south to a more protected anchorage on the second largest island of San Jose, besides which we needed somewhere without current where we could clean the bottom. The strong winds didn’t, of course, materialise to the extent that we had been warned, but the anchorage was pretty and quiet and Mike did, at last, get to try out his Brownie hookah system which worked brilliantly and between us with ropes under the keel, we managed to scrape off the profuse barnacle and weed garden – so much for Coppercoat antifouling! We continued to sail on around the islands to the beautiful bay on Isla del Cana, another lovely protected anchorage where we were met by dozens of rays swimming around us in formation of about 8 or 9 per squadron. They approached the boat as we anchored, eyeing us as they glided past and it seemed that having satisfied themselves that we were harmless, disappeared until the following day. We must have arrived in the islands during the annual hatching of a swarm of butterflies and we watched thousands of these large iridescent black, green and gold creatures, flying in all directions – why would they be flying out to sea?! They were too fast for our photos, but we did manage to fish one out of the water on a trip up the nearby little tidal river.
Although we had anticipated spending most of our five weeks before we needed to depart Panama in the Perlas, as always, it wasn’t to be and with no information or response on certain parts and the SSB still not working, we had no option but to leave these delightful islands and head back to Panama City and the not so delightful anchorage of La Playita. It was no pleasure to put our anchor down once more into the thick, glutinous mud which I had spent some time cleaning off the decks, the anchor and chain and myself when we had left two weeks earlier. Within a very short time, our beautifully clean hull, below and above the waterline, was again filthy and encrusted.
These past four weeks have been incredibly frustrating but the SSB (long range radio), after hours/days of checking, rechecking all the components and finally calling in a professional is at last working well – hurray!! The AIS is, fingers crossed, also off the list and we are, dare I say it, nearly ready to leave. We are well provisioned after many visits to the supermarkets, with the waterline now below the plimsoll line with just the fruit and vegetable market to re-visit. (At our last visit, we bought half a sack of sweet local oranges – about 50 for $2.50 – with imported oranges in the supermarket at 50c each we reckon that must be the biggest bargain ever.)
I took the opportunity to relieve the boredom of La Playita by line handling for a yacht going through to the Caribbean side and it was interesting to experience the journey from the other direction as well as giving me the chance to see and appreciate again the incredible engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. It was fun, although somewhat chaotic with a couple of gays proudly flying their “rainbow flag” and their relatives who had never been on a boat before. Apart from one cliff-hanging episode in the second lock when we failed to tie up to our neighbouring tourist vessel because her bow thrusters continued to push us towards the opposite wall, everything went according to plan and we raced across the lake and out into the Caribbean side all in one day and I returned to La Playita the following day.
Our new crew member, Rich, arrived a week ago and has been hard at work ever since. Hopefully, following Mike’s dental appointment tomorrow to glue in place once more the bridge which he had fitted in Colon, topping up the gas, filling the water and fuel tanks and that visit to the market for more oranges and much more, we shall be ready to check out on Thursday and leave for the Perlas to clean the bottom. And with fair winds next weekend we shall finally be able to set our sights on Easter Island and the long passage south.  

 

Ecuador

Ecuador was quite different from Colombia, much more arid countryside. Whereas Colombia had been predominantly green rolling hills, farms, pasture and crops, Ecuador was cactus, bare hillsides, deep river gorges and soaring peaks, here we were on the equator and the heat was quite intense unless at a high altitude. We had to be careful of the sun as the UV factor was off the scale and skin burned in minutes, despite our deep tans.
The Ecuadorian people were much more Indian and less Spanish in their origin than Colombians, the women dressed in their brightly coloured dresses topped by a felt hat. The men too were often dressed in traditional costume or sometimes in Stetson, jeans and high heeled boots. As a people they weren’t as friendly to us westerners as the Colombians had been and you had the feeling in visiting the country of a much more distant culture,
At 10.30 in the morning we arrived at the Ecuadorian border and took a taxi to border immigration which was 15 minutes ride away, after a quick clearance out of Colombia we then stood in line for half an hour to be stamped in to Ecuador. After we had cleared in we took another taxi to Tucan, the first town over the border, where we caught a very slow bus to the market town of Otavalo, passing through very arid mountains, lots of cactus, some flowering. 
We stayed in the Flying Donkey hostel (The flying donkey in Ecuador is the UK equivalent to the flying pig in UK) that evening we shopped and in the evening cooked spaghetti bolognese while chatting to the other inmates, some French people and a couple of Brit guys, Tom and Jake who were touring South America after a spell of teaching in China.
The next day Gill wanted to stay over to see the famous market in Otovalo, reputed to be the largest in South America, which turned out to be a big disappointment and nothing very special. I bought a Panama hat, ironically the real ones are made in Ecuador, to protect my ears, baseball caps are great but they don’t protect the ears and mine were getting a bit crispy.
The following morning we left Otavalo for Quito and a 2 hr bus ride. On arriving in Quito we were lucky to meet a local couple in the main bus terminal who showed us how to get across town on the metro bus to our Hostal Juana D’Arc in Santo Domingo Square. The Hostal had a rather grand entrance hall panelled in wood with a sweeping open wooden staircase rising two floors to where our room was. It was quite a hike up with heavy bags and then back down to the kitchen where we prepared our meals. The shower in the room we were first shown must qualify as the world’s smallest, it was much smaller than a telephone box and I couldn’t get in it. The second room we were shown had the world’s second smallest shower but I could get into it by squeezing in sideways. This had nothing to do with my size as I’m quite slim these days but rather the need to squeeze the shower into what had previously been a wardrobe.  
Quito is a vast city lying between high mountain peaks and runs along the valley floor at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It also has a very complicated bus service run by many different operators, it took us a few days to get the hang of who went where. We took a City Bus Tour on our first day which included the Panicillio a large hill overlooking Quito and the 100ft monument of the Virgin de Quito towering over the city. We climbed up the monument to the top and enjoyed great views over Quito.
The next morning we took a walking tour recommended in the guide book, we bought lunch at the Cafe De Teatro for $3 which consisted of soup, prawns and pudding and a drink of fresh juice. Eating out in Quito certainly wasn’t going to break the bank! We also wanted to go to Mitad del Mundo (centre of the earth) a monument which lies right on the Equator and about 2 hours bus ride out of town. Disaster struck though, in the crush Gill got on the bus but I was slowed by an old lady in front of me and the doors shut in my face so I had to catch the next bus hoping Gill would be at the next stop. She wasn’t so I stayed on the bus to the Northern terminus hoping she might be there but again she wasn’t. I assumed she had gone on to Mitag Del Mundo and so caught another bus for the hours journey there. By now it was 5pm and it was obvious that Gill wasn’t in Mitad Del Mundo either so I caught a bus back to Quito getting back at 7pm. Gill was very upset and worried about my late arrival, it got dark at 6.00pm and Quito is not the town to be wandering around in the dark. As it happened Gill had gone all the way to the north terminal and waited for me to arrive but somehow we had missed each other in the crowds.
We had a friendly bunch of Venezuelans staying in the Hostal with us who lived on a diet of hamburgers, tommy k, mayonnaise and crisps or fried spam rolls or frankfurters in French bread. We competed for space in the kitchen with them, us eating our normally healthy option and them with their fast food one but it was interesting to learn about their country and its issues.

The next day we went to the famous Campania de Jesus to see the fantastic gold work in the church, almost every surface is covered in gold leaf, it’s a stunning and a beautiful sight. When it was built in the 16th century of course gold was in plentiful supply in Ecuador but the cost must have been quite something even then. 
We then caught a bus to the museum of culture and I had my pocket picked on the way, I lost $30, my debit card and driving licence, we had been warned about thieves on the buses and I should have remembered to put it in my rucksack after paying our fares. Fortunately Gill had some cash with her to get us back to the hostel but it was nevertheless a disturbing experience and one that made me much more careful for the rest of our journey. In the museum they had put on an exhibition of modern art which was much better than other modern art exhibitions we’ve seen. A man in his 50’s came up to us while we were meandering around the gallery and asked us if we liked the paintings. Fortunately we said we did as he turned out to be the artist! He explained he had studied Goya and Velazquez at the Prada in Madrid who were his main influences it was interesting talking to him however we beat a hasty retreat when he tried to sell us some of his work. We excused ourselves by explaining we lived on a boat and had no space for paintings! 

We both liked Quito despite the light fingered nature of some of its inhabitants, there is a lot to see and do there although it is very noisy and busy some might say vibrant, but definitely an assault on the senses.
The next day we set off for the relative peace of Banos, Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon jungle. The bus station in Quito was heaving, it was a special holiday, Night of the Dead (all saints day)! Gill after trying several bus companies and much queueing for tickets managed to get us on a bus to Banos in 2 hours time while I guarded the luggage. It was a 3 hour journey passing Cotapaxi Volcano smoking away peacefully and on last part of the journey spectacular views of the deep valley and river on the road into Banos. We stayed at Hostal Balcones overlooking the riverine the outskirts of Banos for 3 days and discovered that Jake and Tom who we had met in Otavalo were also staying there. Manuel, the owner gave us a lift into town into town and we climbed the 1000 or so steps up to the Virgin Mary Statue high on the hill overlooking the town. On returning to the Hostal we found out that Jake and Tom had been hired by Manuel to work for him, which delighted the guys and covered the cost of their accommodation.

There is a famous railway journey up here in the Andes called Nariz de Diablo which we wanted to ride to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the route. The train left from the town of Alausi, a bit of a one horse town, with a Main Street that looked like something from a spaghetti western. The views on the trip to Simbala were as spectacular as promised and we rode some pretty steep slopes with deep ravines alongside. 
The next day we booked on the bus to El Tambo on the way to the famous Inca site of Ingapirka, amazingly the bus conductor came to our hotel to collect our baggage and took it off to load on to the bus. I don’t think it’s a service offered by National Express in England! In El Tambo we hired a pick-up truck taxi on to Ingapirka to stay in the Hospedaje El Castillo with Elsa and Gonzalo the delightful owners. In the afternoon we walked around an inca trail and saw the Sun Rock, an intricate stone calendar used by the Incas over 700 years ago, a rock carved in the shape of a turtle, another with the face of an Inca and a seat for viewing the universe, all Inca or Canari natural monuments. The next morning we visited the temple ruins ruins. The site had originally been used by Canari Indians from 2000 years ago before the Inca invaded from the south. The Inca were very impressed with the Canary and shared power rather than wiping them out. The temple lies on lei lines between the surrounding mountains, judged to be a unique site by both Canari and Inca who then set about building there own temple over the original Canari one and added an extensive supporting infrastructure around about. In the afternoon we explained the concept of the Lonely Planet Guide and booking.com to Gonzalo to put El Castillo on the map and increase their bookings as they operated without any form of advertising. Gill applied to Lonely Planet and I to booking.com and we received an email a month later from Gonzales saying they had been accepted by both and offered his profuse thanks. While we were waiting for Elsa to cook us a dinner of roast Guinea pig Gill taught Jimmy, their son English for an hour and he picked it up very quickly, a very bright boy. The nights up here are very cold at an altitude of 3150m and we find we get puffed climbing hills or steps and notice the degenerating effect of the thinner air. Coming from Panama with its high temperatures and sweaty humidity it a shock to be wearing sweaters and long trousers and be covered by thick blankets at night while right on the equator.
Our next stop was Cuenca about two hours away by bus, but with all the walking we had done over the last few days my ankle mended with plate and screws was badly swollen so I was using a walking stick to get about. We arrived at Chorita’s house by taxi and the next morning we took an open topped city tour bus and we did a complete circuit of the town. At Tuni, a village on a high hill just outside Cuenca everyone got off to take in the views over the city and I stayed on rather than put more strain on my ankle. The bus suddenly took off back down the hill with only me on board upstairs. Gill was left behind and I had her rucksack with all her money etc. Thinking the driver had finished for the day and was on his way home I hobbled downstairs to tell him I was still on board. Fortunately he said we were off to get some fuel and would return in about an hour. Gill worried when she saw the bus leave without a word of what was happening but all was well in the end. The following morning our landlady Chorito drove us to the hospital to get my ankle X-rayed it turned out to be ok and I was just told to rest it, Afterwards Chorito drove us to the bus station and we caught the 11.30 to the next major town going south, Loja which proved of little interest. This was where we split up Gill going to Villacamba and me to Puria in Peru. The plan was I would make my way down the Amazon to Iquitos and take a boat 300 miles down the Amazon to Letitia in Colombia from where I would fly back to Bogotá where I would meet up with Gill. Meantime she travelled back up through Ecuador and Colombia to visit places we missed on the way down. Gill had already boated down the Amazon and wasn’t interested in doing it again. For me it was a great experience and I went off to explore the river and jungle for a few days with some local Indians, sleeping in the open on their canoe. They knew where to find medicinal plants,sacred trees, snakes, mammals, birds, and we fished for and caught and ate piranha and went on a night hunt for alligators. It was the experience of a lifetime, short but intensely interesting in such a remote area so different from anything I had ever experienced. I then took the fast ferry down from Iquitos to Letitia in Colombia. While there I walked over the border into Brazil just go have a look, it was that easy, no customs or immigration, I just ambled over the border had a look and walked back to Colombia. The next day I flew up to Bogotá to rejoin Gill and then we both flew back to Panama and the boat.

Caressed by Colombia

We have spent a couple of months touring Colombia, Ecuador and for me, Peru as Gill had toured Peru a few years before and I wanted to travel down the Amazon so the next blogs are on these countries but we have very limited bandwidth Internet when travelling in these countries so there are no photographs. If I can add these later I will.Thoughts on Colombia as a country – The Colombians have recently opened up to tourism and are trying very hard to overcome the image people have of the country,- guerrillas, drug barons, open warfare, dangerous streets, muggings and rape! Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth, this is a delightful country with the most hospitable, helpful, open people we met anywhere in Central and South America. Visit Colombia before it becomes like everywhere else and they start ripping off tourists as will happen. I am sure there are bad guys around but in a month of touring around Colombia we didn’t meet one. Because there aren’t many tourists they are very interested in where you come from and desperate for you to like their country and it is a country of varied beautiful scenery, soaring mountains, arid deserts, deep river valleys, great beaches, clean towns (unlike most of their neighbours) striking Spanish architecture. It’s a big country to see and very diverse, our bus journeys were cheap but long. You could reckon on $1 per hour of journey. Our longest journey being 21 hours from Carthagena to Medellin but mainly because of an accident. The standard of driving is grim and even our bus drivers were eating in one hand, on the phone with the other and steering with their elbows round hairpin bends with drops of hundreds of feet. The roadsides are littered with crosses and shrines to those who didn’t make it!

Much of Colombia is over 10,000 feet and we thought we might be affected by altitude but this was limited to puffing up hills a bit. We didn’t have to resort to any coca remedies to get us up to the top.

You certainly wouldn’t come her for the food, lots of beans and rice and fried chicken, however the Colombians are an attractive people and not as fat as their neighbours. It’s nice to find a country that doesn’t have McDonalds and KFC on every corner.

THE HIGHLIGHTS OF Colombia

We arrived on a flight from Panama City to Bogota and had used Airbnb to find Udet and her families B&B. Her son David collected us from the airport in Dads new car which we thought was rather nice but then he charged us for the privilege and a lot more we found out later than a taxi driver would have been, still it’s the thought that counts!, They were a nice family and good for telling us where to go and how to get there but we had a very hard small bed and not much room for swinging the cat. They also had a scrounging little yappy dog, neither of us liked but it was to be our base for the next five days while we explored Bogotá.

It’s a very noisy traffic ridden city with one of the most confusing bus services we’ve yet encountered but on our second day we ventured into town and as we approached the city centre there was only us and a little “Miss Marples” lady left on the bus. We asked her where to get off for the gold museum and she promised to tell us. When we got to the stop she got off as well and insisted we follow her to her home for tea and biscuits, which wasn’t far. She showed us around her flat and made us welcome, bear in mind she spoke no English so our subsequent hour long discussions were based on our very limited Spanish. I just can’t imagine any one, let alone an elderly lady, in Europe, inviting complete strangers who didn’t speak their language into their home and entertaining them but this wonderful experience proved to be characteristic of the Colombian people.

While we were in Bogota we visited the monastery at Monserrate high on a hill overlooking the city which we reached by cable car and then walked the 13 stages of the cross as we climbed the hill, with depictions at each. We went to the Gold museum which gave the history of Colombia in terms of gold from the times of the ancient tribes through the Spanish period and up to current times. Some of the Inca jewellery was simply stunning and very intricately worked.

We went to see the cathedral and president’s palace the following day. On the way home we got on the bus in pouring rain but when I swiped my card to board it rejected it several times so we had to get off. I then realised I had used my Panama bus pass by mistake. Gill, to put it mildly was furious and drenched to the skin. Eventually another bus arrived and this time I got off too early and we had a half hour walk, fortunately by now the rain has stopped, but the dark cloud of Gill muttering oaths behind me followed on unremittingly.

The following day we didn’t fair much better. We decided to venture out of town and without problem found the bus to take us north to Zapaquiri where the “salt cathedra”l is. This was quite an amazing place, originally a salt mine where, once the mining finished they had cut sculptures of the 13 stages of the cross in salt, at intervals through the mine, culminating in a cathedral deep underground. The cathedral had a huge cross carved in salt at the altar end and lit with blue light, it was quite a sight. The cathedral held 2500 people for the regular services held there for the town and I can imagine the sound of music and singing would be quite moving. After our visit we caught the bus back to the terminus in Bogota, not far from Udet’s place and ordered a taxi through a lady scheduler. We showed her the paper we had with Udet’s address on. The taxi set off and it soon became apparent it was headed into town rather than going the right way. We told the taxi driver who insisted he was right. We told him it was no more than a five minute journey and by now we had been going for 15 minutes and the meter was mounting fast. As we approached the town centre we told him to stop and showed him the address we had written down. He said yes! yes! and carried on. We stopped him again and rang David, Udet’s son and asked him to explain to this numb scull of a taxi driver that we were on the wrong side of town. The taxi driver then wanted paying for the total journey and we refused. To settle the situation David offered to drive into town to collect us and in the meantime we agreed a compromise fee with the taxi driver of $15 instead of the $5 it should have cost us, legalised robbery but to be fair he had been given the wrong address but then didn’t listen to us, we didn’t part the best of friends

After Bogotá we travelled for four hours by bus to visit the lovely village of Vale de Leyva. We toured the nice old cobbled streets and admired the Spanish architecture. The next day we hired bikes from a nice woman in a bike hire shop called Cyclops and pedalled off in the heat to see the blue lagoons which as it turned out were green. Next stop the fossil museum with lots of marine fossils from when this area was the seabed and a fantastical terracotta house/folly that was like something out of a fairy story, a cross between a Gingerbread House and a mini Castle, but no Rumplestiltskin!

Then it was back on the bus the next day for a 24 hour journey north to Tayrona National Park on the Atlantic coast where we stayed in a hostel run by Juan Carlos and his wife, aided by brother Juan. Our accommodation was a little round thatched house which had a very dirty brown water supply straight from the jungle. The following morning Juan drove us to the national park which is an Indian reserve on the North coast of Colombia. We walked for an hour and a half to Piscina, a nice beach where we could buy freshly squeezed orange juice and had a swim. We decided on a horse ride back for an hour which I really enjoyed, unfortunately Gill found it hurt her hips and was very sore afterwards, so that was the end of our horse riding.

Four hours further west, again by bus, is the famous old town of Carthagena where we stayed with a local family at a their B&B at a cost of only $8 per night. In the morning I went off on Carthagena to take a city bus tour meeting up with Gill later in the old walled city. We visited Fort San Felipe De Barajas in the centre of town which held out against 12,000 English and American troops led by Admiral Vernon and his fleet of 180 ships.

The following day we went up the hill overlooking the city by taxi to Convento Santa Cruz de La Popa and got an adultos majores (oap) discount, yeah! Sad isn’t it!. Great views from the top over the city. The road up there however we were warned is very dangerous with motor bike muggers robbing tourists and locals alike, so the taxi waited and took us back again to the old city. We decided what we needed after days off Romano was a boat trip and opted for the launch to Fort Fernandez which was captured by Admiral Vernon in his 1741 attack on the harbour. The fort was well preserved and interesting but we were the only visitors there in contrast to San Felipe Fort in town which was mobbed, mainly by cruise ship tourists who could be seen in their sad crocodiles wending there way around town to get the “been to Colombia” tee shirt. Whoops my prejudices are showing!

Sadly the island on which the San Fernandez fort was based was a disgrace, the village and beaches were disgustingly filthy, the worst we had seen in Colombia. 

Gill quite liked Carthagena but I found it touristy, dirty and unfriendly.

Our next town headed south was Medellin, a modern thriving city, normally about 8 hours away from Carthagena but for us a 20 hour journey because of an accident en-route. When we eventually arrived in Medellin we found a taxi to take us to Liana and Mauricio’s apartment, another Airbnb gem. The apartment was well furnished, spacious and located very near the city centre. Liana and Mauricio, both in their 50’s didn’t live there, this was their “in town apartment” their proper home was about an hours drive away and they had come in to vet us and show us around. They were the perfect hosts, a wonderfully friendly couple who couldn’t do enough for us. After the first night to check us out they headed back home and left us on our own in their wonderful three bedded apartment. We toured the town, took in a free song and dance evening at the local theatre and headed home for bed. The following day we took the bus to a place out of town called La Piedra (the stone) which was a 1000 ft vertical volcanic plug rising out of flat ground with 740 steps up the side to get to the top. We climbed up for the most spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. I managed OK with the heights by not looking down and had my vertigo reasonably under control and Gill managed fine with her dodgy hips.

The next morning we were up at 7.00 to catch the bus further south to Pereira and after 4 hours we got off at Estrada de Santa Rosa de Cabal where we had booked to stay at the Coffee Town Hostel There were fantastic views along the way, high mountains, rolling hills, tumbling rivers and sleepy villages. At the Hostal we met a couple of girls, a French Canadian and a French girl Perrine who worked for the Hostal and offered to cancel our booking as a no show to avoid paying the booking fee. After we left it went badly wrong which ended with Perrine paying for our nights accommodation and despite my assurances to send her the money, she wouldn’t here of it

Our next stop, again south was Popayan, a nondescript town where the only thing we could find to do was visit a coffee farm which was called Coffee Finca which turned out to be much more than just a coffee farm. The proceeds from the coffee farm were used to run a school and social facility for 100 mentally handicapped kids and those who had grown to adults. These were superb facilities and run by very loving helpers. The children were so obviously happy there. We travelled there with children in a brightly coloured chicken bus or Chiva (and we got to sit up front with the driver and I got to blow the air horn) picking them up from their parents along the way. We toured the coffee farm but for us the highlight was seeing what they were doing for the children and we had lots of hugs from these smashing kids.

The next day we got up up early to catch 8.30 bus to Pasto, still heading south towards Ecuador and the 6 hour journey was through spectacular mountain scenery. Bus drivers are a different breed here and we had the Schumacher equivalent who pushed the speed to the maximum on very windy roads and steep drops, but you can only die once! Pasto also turned out to be a disappointment although when the taxi driver had difficulty locating our B&B we had plenty of Police help in finding it. As there wasn’t much to see in Pasto we got up at 6.30 to catch a mini bus to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border where we walked over a bridge over a river, pulling our suitcases, to leave Colombia behind and enter Ecuador. 

Overland through North East US and Canada.

It may seem a funny thing to say but having spent the last three months on a variety of palm covered islands we were looking forward to some land-based travel and the contrasting adventure of a few days in New York followed by a train ride to Niagara Falls was an exciting prospect.

We took a flight from Panama City to New York and from the airport to Manhattan by train without any hitches. We were staying in the YMCA on the East 47th Street and took a taxi from Penn Station to the hostel. The room was a bit of a shock to say the least it was hardly bigger than a telephone box into which they had managed to squeeze two bunk beds, however we wouldn’t be spending much time in the room as we had places to see and things to do.

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The Manhattan Skyline

We had prepared a list of all the places we wanted to see and in the next three days we walked our socks off. On day one we took a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked over Brooklyn Bridge, visited Times Square and went up the Empire State Building. You read about these places but to be there and see and experience first-hand was an experience not to be missed; the views from the Empire State, the buskers and bustle of Times Square, the sense of history seeing Ellis Island, the brilliant gold flashing in the sunlight on the Statue of Liberty.

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Under The Statue of Liberty

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Over Brooklyn Bridge

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View from the 86th floor of the Empire State

We were moved by the beautiful water feature at Ground Zero with all the names engraved of those who had died; it was a very peaceful place of remembrance in the middle of busy Manhattan.

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The Remembrance Feature at Ground Zero

On our second day Gill needed to get her iPad fixed which had a cracked screen so we headed off to the majestic and impressive Grand Central Station which has an equally impressive Apple Centre overlooking the main concourse. Apple staff were terrific and without hesitation swopped her IPad for a new one.

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The main concourse at Grand Central Station

After this we had decided to visit the Guggenheim Museum of modern art which unfortunately did nothing for either of us, sadly piles of bricks have spread here from the Tate Gallery and nails in a wall showed little artistic talent or imagination, it was a case of the Emperors clothes for us. The only exhibit which impressed me was some fantastical figures all in white.

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Yup! Pinochio is dead – official

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Fantastical Figures in white

It was a beautiful afternoon so we bought some wraps from a stall and sat in Central Park to eat them. We then meandered through the park in glorious sunshine watching New Yorkers relaxing. No trip to New York would be complete without seeing a show on Broadway so on our third night we went to see Phantom of the Opera. Neither of us had seen it before and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even if though it was an expensive experience, it was just one of those things we had to do.

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Central Park

On our last day Gill was meeting an old school friend of hers, MaryAnn who lived in New York and who she hadn’t seen for 50 years so I went off to the Air and Sea Museum for the day. It is based on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid which served from 1943 to 1974 seeing action many times.

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USS Intrepid

The exhibit also houses the Space Shuttle, an early nuclear submarine and Concorde so I spent all day walking around these fascinating exhibits before heading off to an Irish Bar for a well-earned proper pint and a steak dinner. Gill’s meeting wasn’t till after lunch in the morning so she decided to visit The Natural History Museum and met MaryAnn afterwards on the steps of the museum. They wandered through Little Italy (for the essential ice-cream of course), passing through the edge of Chinatown and Soho before going on to see the UN buildings and Dag Hammarskjold dedications.

Some of Gill’s recollections of New York were, “friendly immigrants and ethnic people, bags of rubbish in streets, safe, vibrant, presence of police (for me an unease about so many armed police at the fireworks venue), many people taking selfies, so many Delis (cheap), expensive restaurants, lack of taxis, street hustlers in Times Square and slow, tired and inefficient Amtrak trains”

We were both exhausted by our four day sightseeing and the many miles we had covered but we saw what we came to see and weren’t disappointed. My ankles and Gill’s hips had held up well but we were both looking forward to sitting down to our 10 hour train journey up through New York State and into the Canadian side of Niagara Falls where we were due to meet some friends of Gill’s, Fred and Liz, who she hadn’t seen for 20 years.

The train followed the wide meandering Hudson River upstate for many miles, passing through a handful of scruffy, nondescript towns. Although restful the journey was disappointing from an experience point of view, trees, trees and more trees in a flat landscape, hour after hour of sameness. We arrived 2 hours late and then spent an hour going through Canadian immigration and customs where we saw a much more welcoming attitude from staff who actually seemed pleased to see us, a pleasant change from the surly unwelcoming attitude we encountered entering the U.S.

Fred and Liz were still waiting for us and whisked us off to the hotel they had booked for us all into. It couldn’t have been better, our room was a suite on the 27th floor looking right out over the falls, which are lit at night. They had arrived the night before to make sure we got the right room which they insisted on treating us to. This was only a taste of the fantastic hospitality we experienced from these two lovely people. After breakfast we put our bags in Liz’s car and Gill and I walked along the promenade past the falls, doing the tourist thing and taking pictures.

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The view from our bedroom

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Maid of the Mist getting wet

They picked us up and drove us the 40 miles to their lovely home in Mississauga on Lake Ontario.  We spent 5 relaxing days with Liz and Fred, meeting their friends and family and joining in their social life. We drove up to their son John’s house for a barbecue and he drove us around the area to see the many Mennonite farms. The families live very simple lives and shun modern conveniences like cars, computers and mobile phones. Many of the farms had no electricity and the farming was done by hand in old traditional ways, although we did see a few tractors around.

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Mennonite pony and trap

John’s now a man of 50+ with two sons and the last time Gill had seen him he was a gangly teenager of 15 but John remember her clearly from their time together in Nigeria.

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John to the right of Gill

We also attended a Rotary Garden Party, Fred and Liz are both very active members and past presidents. Liz was presented with the trophy for the annual Bridge championship. Her prowess doesn’t stop there however Liz is still playing tennis competitively at 76 years old after representing Canada in her earlier years.

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Liz being presented with the trophy

On our last day with them we went into Toronto by GO train which took us right into the city centre. We visited the museum there with its very interesting Inuit exhibition. It was too misty to go up the CNN tower, apparently the view from the top is marvellous, maybe another day!

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A brief glimpse of the CNN Tower

We had a wonderful time staying with Fred and Liz and from here we planned the rest of our tour of Eastern Canada, with helpful advice from Fred on where to go and what to see. One of the places they recommended was Mont Tremblant, a mountain ski resort in the Algonquin highlands and Liz booked our hotel for three nights using points they had accrued on their travels, lovely lady that she is.

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Liz and Fred with Gill outside their house

We wanted to hire a car for ten days to visit Ottowa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Halifax in Nova Scotia where we could then get a ferry to Bangor in Maine, dropping off the car in Halifax. All the car hire companies however wanted extortionate drop off charges of around $780 which was more than the car rental so we abandoned our plan for Nova Scotia and decided to return to Boston by bus from Montreal. I found a really good online deal with Budget and no drop off charges but being suspicious that it was just too good, Liz drove me to the office where they confirmed they would honour the quote. When we came to pick it up the car the next day it wasn’t the economy compact I had booked, it was a 7 seater Chrysler which they needed returning to Montreal and all for the same price, we were delighted and loaded our bags and said our farewells to Liz  and Fred, two of the nicest most hospitable people you could hope to meet and headed off to Prince Edward County on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Then it was on to Prince Edward County where we hoped to meet up with Larry and Jan who we had last seen in St Martin, in the Caribbean and who had hoped to sail through the Pacific with us on Romano when sadly Larry fell ill and I broke my ankles. Liz kept her boat here on Lake Ontario and Larry kept his in the Caribbean and they swapped around summer and winter which gave them the best of both worlds. They were getting Liz’s boat ready for the summer in Canada at a marina and we had booked a B&B nearby.

Picton was our first B&B booking through Airbnb who as many of you may know let out rooms in people’s homes which for us was a great way to meet local families. This first night was booked with a lady called Sherlyn who wasn’t able to meet us but had arranged for Gene a permanent resident to let us in. Gene as it turned out had had a massive stroke and had difficulty in speaking but we managed fine and he looked after us very well throughout our stay and was completely unfazed by his handicap, a really nice guy. Sherlyn was a collector and the house was packed with nick knacks of every sort you could find but there was nowhere to put anything, even the bathroom and the dining room table were piled with stuff, it must have taken weeks to dust. We commented on this in our review and Sherlyn was very sniffy about it.

We had checked in for two nights and that evening we went off to explore the surroundings with the intention of meeting up with Jan and Larry in the marina. After much searching and back tracking we eventually found the marina down a little country lane, not at all where we thought it was. Jan and Larry had just fired up the barbecue and threw on a few more chops for us. It was great to see them again and catch up with their news over a couple of drinks and dinner. We arranged to meet again the following evening at a pub recommended by Larry where they played live music and occasionally Jan was known to sing there. She came from a musical family and her sister was Lee of Peters and Lee from way back in the 60’s for those of you who can remember that long ago.

The next day we set off to explore the island it was a very pretty with lovely views over the water, rolling wooded hills, tidy clapper board houses, clean streets and immaculate “yards”. Nothing was out of place anywhere. We visited an unusual lake high on a hill overlooking the sea which had been used to provide water power to timber and flour mills and power generation plants and ensured the prosperity of the towns around for nearly 100 years until steam took over and the whole area went into decline.

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We found an unusual sandy beach on the banks of Ontario and spent the afternoon chilling out.

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In the evening we met at the pub and had a nice meal with Jan and Larry. The guitarist was someone Jan didn’t know so she was happy to sit and chat and listen to the music.

In the morning we packed up the car and headed for Ottawa and on the way passed through Kingston one time capital of Canada and a pretty town with lovely buildings and waterfront at the end of Lake Ontario and at the entrance to the St Lawrence.

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The pretty town of Kingston

This was our second Airbnb accommodation, this time with Abdul, who proved to be the perfect host. We had the run of his very modern house and could use all the facilities we needed. The only other person staying there was a Lutheran minister from Virginia called Christine. Christine was large in every sense, big lady, big personality, big sense of humour and we got on famously. Her idea of religion was based on love and tolerance and pretty much anything went! She was on a Sabbatical and travelling by car up to a convent in Saskatchewan where she was planning to meditate for three months. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall!

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Parliament Buildings in Ottowa

We drove into the centre of Ottowa that evening and went for a walk around. It’s a beautiful City and everywhere is so clean and tidy and well organised. It was a”Rib Fest” when we were there and a whole street near the parliament buildings had been closed off to allow stalls to be set up, each selling their own version of “prize winning” ribs. We queued to get into a pub where people were taking their meals in with them, so they could have a drink and a seat and the pub was surprisingly cool about it all. I have to say the ribs there were excellent although we probably paid a lot more than the street vendors were charging. The following morning we were back in town and took a “hop on hop off” bus, twice, first time without stopping to see what was worthwhile to visit, the second so we could get on and off at various places, it’s a great way to see a city and the commentary gives you an insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. The influence and links with the British are everywhere and the Canadians clearly value their Commonwealth membership and links with UK, even many of the state flags are defaced Red Ensigns and the currency carries the Queen on all there coins and notes so we felt very much at home. As you drive around Canada the place names are also familiar, Portsmouth, Bath, Halifax, Bristol, Yarmouth, Edinburgh but they are all in the wrong place so you find St Andrews next door to Cornwall which is all very confusing.

All along the banks of Lake Ontario on the way to Ottawa there are Loyalist Towns where the Union Jack is still flown. These towns were settled by people fleeing the revolution in the U.S. and we also learned something new, that the U.S. declared war on Canada and Britain in 1812 and invaded Canada but were repulsed with a mixed army of Canadians, Loyalists, Indians or First People as they are now known in Canada and the British Army. The war lasted two and a half years, I didn’t know that the U.S. had invaded Canada, my history lessons at school missed that out either that or I was asleep.

Leaving Ottawa and heading north we went to Mont Tremblant, in the Laurentian Mountains where Fred and Liz had booked us into the Le Sommet des Neiges hotel on the side of the mountain. We had lovely suite with a kitchen, lounge and dining area and a balcony overlooking the town. The town was host to the Iron Man contest with the winners representing Canada. There were events all around the town and crowds were urging on runners who looked half dead. We went out for a walk on our first evening and were immediately attacked by voracious biting insects, it was straight into the nearest outdoor shop to buy a can of insect spray, we had left ours on the boat thinking we were done with biting things for a while. The following morning we took the cable car just outside our hotel using the complimentary tickets from the hotel.

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On the cable car looking back to town

The views from the top were terrific, it was a beautiful day and you could see for miles over the town and lake beyond.

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The view over the Laurentians

Mont Tremblant is a major ski resort and has all of the facilities you would expect with ski runs and snow sprays all around the mountain. We had noticed they also had a luge so Gill and I went off to have a go. First Gill went down and I stayed behind as camera man to capture her blasting past and then me and then we had a race. As a male and naturally modest I can’t say who won, despite being blocked and rammed at every attempt to pass by the very aggressive competition.

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Eat my dust!

Our next stop was Quebec City – beautiful with a definite French influence in its architecture, cobbled streets, cuisine and people, a very different place in terms of culture, very but not as well maintained as other cities we had seen in Canada and not as friendly.

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Heep big totem pole

If we stopped and opened a map anywhere else people immediately came up and offered to help, there was none of that in Quebec. There were numerous references to its early history and many statues of French heroes but very little about the English conquerors, apart from one lone statue of Wolff on their Parliament building.  Quebec was very much a “country” apart from the rest of the other 12 “English” Provinces.

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Quebec City

On the first evening we decided to go to a Music Festival up on the heights, this involved hundreds of steps and steep streets to get up there. After an hours hard climb we joined the throngs of people headed the same way, the streets were closed to traffic to allow the crowds through. The festival was held on The Plains of Abraham and is free to all.

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We stayed for a couple of hours and listened to a few acts and then headed back to our B&B, at least it was all downhill. The following day we toured the city and ate lunch overlooking the St Lawrence Seaway and watched the cargo ships and yachts passing to and fro. Gills father who was a young deck officer at the time was here on the St Lawrence when she was born, so it had a special significance.

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St Lawrence from Quebec City

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Old Quebec

In the morning we left Quebec for Montreal where we would catch our bus back to Boston. After Quebec Montreal was huge and sprawling, we went directly to our B&B so we could drop off our bags and return the car. We were met by Alex who owned the flat which was really student accommodation but clean and comfortable and we had use of the kitchen and the other two guys living there were friendly and accommodating enough to us oldies. We dropped off the car on the other side of town and made our way back to our temporary home by metro. In the morning we set off to visit the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens and then the old town where we watched live music outdoors on the street including some excellent opera.

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The superb rose display in the botanical gardens

The next day we were up early to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Boston. The bus station wasn’t far so we dragged our cases through the streets which being Sunday morning were very quiet. The journey to Boston was 9 hours through the wooded valleys of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It would have been a spectacular drive in the autumn. We were both very sorry to leave Canada, the hospitality had been superb, the people kind and open, the country so neat and tidy.

The border crossing back into the states was about 2 hours south of Montreal where we were reminded again of the unwelcoming nature of US immigration. Everyone was herded off the bus and made to stand at the back of the room while selected suitcases were removed from the hold on the bus for inspection. It took an hour and a half to process the thirty people on the bus, fortunately we were one of the first to be taken and got back on the bus again to wait. It wouldn’t hurt these guys to smile and be polite and treat people like fellow human beings rather than cattle!

When we arrived in Boston we headed for the airport to pick up a car which because we changed the on-line deal was a lot more expensive. The economy car we booked with them had no boot (trunk) and we had lots of cases so unfortunately we had no choice but to upgrade and of course end up paying through the nose. In Boston we stayed with Karen and Andy, a welcoming young couple, he was English and she was an American and they had met in the UK, got married and came to live in Boston where he worked as a carpenter. They were also new to Airbnb and were letting out their spare room for a bit of extra cash. That night Gill and I we went out and had an excellent Indian curry and in the morning set out to explore Boston waterfront in the pouring rain. Our first stop, of course, was the Boston Tea Party Museum based on a replica ship, the whole story told by actors in period costume, well worth a visit. We found out it wasn’t Paul Revere who made the famous ride he was actually captured by the British just after he set off and it was Longfellow’s poem that erroneously accredited him with the bringing of the news to the rebels. The manipulation was deliberate on Longfellow’s part but he needed a hero and Paul Revere was it.

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Symbolic throwing of the tea

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The replica ship

Nor was the Tea Party solely about taxes it was mainly about the right to self-determination. The settlers didn’t like being run from London by people who knew nothing of the country and its issues. George III refused to acknowledge their pleas so they took matters into their own hands. Not everyone wanted to separate from the crown and the loyalists as they were known headed for Canada which of course remains loyal to the crown to this day. The weather was unfortunate and didn’t show Boston off to its best so we headed back to our B&B to cook a meal Karen and Andy were also cooking a meal so it meant four of us worked together and shared the kitchen work space and the cooker it was a challenge but we made it.

In the morning the skies had cleared and we set off North to explore Maine and to meet up with our cruising friend Rich who we had met in Rio Dulce and who we knew was cruising on his boat Kelly Rae in Maine.

Maine has a deeply and intricately indented rocky coastline, dotted with tiny towns and hundreds of islands, well-known for its fishing industry, particularly lobster.  The mainly white or pastel, well-kept wooden clapperboard houses typify this area of New England.

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Camden Town Maine

The first two nights we decided to experiment and stay in a converted Chicken House with Jessica and her family. They lived on a farm which was no longer worked and purely used as a holiday home by the family in the summer. The Chicken House was quite well furnished, no smell of chickens and was about 50 yards from the main house.

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The chicken house outside

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And the inside

The only problem was – no water or toilet facilities. They  were situated at the back of the main house, through the kitchen, through the dining room, through the lounge, through a study and there it was, shared by 5 adults and two children!  At night when nature called the field was a much better option!

During the following day we drove along coast to Rockland, a major fishing port and we visited the fish harbour where they were unloading some of the boats with a giant Hoover which hosed fish into waiting trucks. The place was mobbed by seagulls just waiting for a fish to drop off a truck. Each truck held tens of thousands of herring; no wonder there aren’t many fish left in the sea.

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A scene from the birds!

The next town along the coast was Rockport situated on a pretty inlet with many boats at anchor. Some were beautiful old wooden schooners, superbly renovated by proud owners. From there it was on to Camden where we sat eating our sandwiches, overlooking picturesque harbour and bay at the foot of waterfall and at Belfast the most northerly point we visited, a ship building and repair town, we turned and headed home.

When it came time to join Rich we moved to the Hawks House Inn in South Bristol. The hotel was run almost solely by the new owner, Steve a very large and lovely guy with a very camp style. He was a great host and kept the guests in fits with his quick wit and funny stories. Steve didn’t have a restaurant that was a future plan but the breakfasts were superb, everything we could think of was on offer. In otherwise beautiful sunny weather, we experienced a day of fog for which this Atlantic coastline is also famous so our pictures of Round Pond are somewhat murky.

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our only misty day

Rich was anchored off a friend Cheryl’s house at Round Pond nearby, where we were to meet them that evening. The house was in a beautiful location overlooking the sound and we sat out on the terrace watching the sun go down over a few drinks and a lot of chat. Cheryl and her husband had built the house several years before but sadly Glen had recently died.

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The house that Glen and Cheryl built

Cheryl suggested we might like to join her and some of her friends on a visit to Boothbay Botanical Gardens. The gardens were one of the best we’ve seen combining natural gardens and plants with fascinating and ingenious moving stainless steel wind sculptures, “whale” rocks spouting water, a lovely children’s garden complete with the largest tadpoles I have ever seen(over an inch long), beautiful water gardens, vertical herb gardens, an imaginative Faerie Land amongst rocks and trees alongside the river, it was a great day out followed by a relaxed evening back at Cheryl’s in good company.

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Dragonfly resting

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Gill adventuring

That evening Rich asked if we would like to go for a sail the following day in Kelly Rae, his Pacific Seacraft 34 and Gill and I  jumped at the chance to get back out on the water. It was a beautiful day with fair winds as we set off to explore the surrounding islands. Gill helmed most of the way and thoroughly enjoyed sailing the boat. We saw puffins on one of the islands skimming across the water in search of food. You could spend months cruising Maine and never get tired, it’s a very interesting and picturesque coastline.

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Gill helming Kelly Rae, with Rich

That night we took Rich out for a meal, Cheryl had gone cycling with friends. We ate at a waterside restaurant run by the local fisheries company where you brought your own bottle. Gill and Rich ordered while I went off to the local store to buy some wine. Gill wanted to try the clam chowder but they only had a haddock variant so Gill and Rich settled for that, I had a much anticipated lobster and clam dish, a nice meal in a lovely setting.

We asked Rich if he fancied crewing for us across the Pacific. He liked the idea but wanted to think it over depending how his own boat plans worked out. We were in no rush so we agreed he would let us know in September, he’s an experienced solo sailor and we get on well together.

We left Hawks Bay after an early breakfast and Steve’s parting gift of still warm blueberry muffins which he had baked that morning, for the long drive to Boston to drop off the car and catch the bus for the 4 hour trip to New York.

It was the 4th July when we arrived in New York and the hostel told us there was a big firework display was to be held on the water at East River, not far from the YMCA, so we headed off and joined the throngs. We found a great spot right in front of the barges from where the fireworks were launched. After a wait of an hour or so watching the crowds and you could hear many different languages being spoken. The display started at 9.30, it was spectacular and went on for about 40 minutes, lots of ooo’s and ahh’s from the crowd.

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4th July Celebrations in New York

The following day I was flying back to Panama from Newark and Gill from JFK to London so we parted in the subway and headed off in our different directions. Gill went to have a look at the High Line which is a disused aerial railway that has been converted into gardens and a high level walk through lower Manhattan.

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The High Line walk way and gardens

Unfortunately my flight was much earlier than Gills so I didn’t make it but headed straight for the airport. It was just as well I did as the trains for Newark were only every hour and one had just left as I arrived.

Our next blog will be in about 5 months time and cover our journey through South America to Colombia and Ecuador and perhaps Peru if time permits.

Pottering in Panama

There are 300 or so islands off the coast of Panama which are known as the San Blas islands by us gringos and “Kuna Yala” by the indigenous Kuna indians whose way of life has changed little in the last 2000 years. They still live in little thatched huts with earthen floors and bamboo walls, go fishing in traditional dug out canoes, collect their water from the rivers, pick coconuts and wild mangoes from the jungle, and trade with passing Colombian boats.     

 

Kuna canoeing home

 
 The Darien peninsula and the off-lying islands were once part of Colombia but now come under Panamanian control, however the Kuna are given special privileges (government subsidies) to enable them to preserve their traditional way of life, although many have satellite TV’s, solar panels and mobile phones in their thatched huts, and big new Yamaha outboards on their boats, a curious mix!

 

Kuna women make and sell Molas

 
The mainland Darien Peninsula is mostly impenetrable jungle which is why the Kuna live on the coastal desert islands as fisher folk. Each inhabited island has its own set of Chiefs, or Sailas as they call them, who hold open meetings most days in the council hut to hear petitions and dispense wisdom and justice, the way it has been for the last thousand years. They are a happy go lucky people who are tolerant of the yachties who are the only outsiders they really see and who provide them with their major source of income, buying their crafts, fruit and vegetables and fish, lobster and crab. 

 

Canoes selling local produce come by

  
Unfortunately this subsidy dependant people have become greedy over recent years and see us cruisers as fair game nowadays, trying to charge us for anchoring and visiting islands and anything else they can dream up, so there’s a cat and mouse game between the yachties trying to avoid paying and the Kuna trying to collect our dollars. I refused to pay on one occasion which didn’t go down well with the Kuna boatmen and we were ordered out of the anchorage, but we ignored them and stayed till morning when the sun had risen to show the surrounding reefs and our way out. We try to explain to them if they make it too expensive and unwelcoming, boats will stop coming and they’ll lose the revenue from selling goods and services. Some recognise this but most see us as a way of making easy money and don’t want to change. The cruise ships have already stopped visiting the islands because they overcharged, from our point of view that’s good news but for them its a financial disaster they killed the golden goose. It’s the fishermen and their wives who sew the beautiful Molas who will lose out if the yachts stop coming, Some work hard for a living and charge a fair price for their labour. 

 

our guide taking us around his island

 
The Molas which are made from several layers of different coloured material are beautifully embroidered, pulling colours from the lower layers to build a traditional picture of fish, birds, or jungle flowers, or other things which form a part of their lives. The best of these sell for $50 but can take two to three months of painstaking work to make and are a real work of art. Some of the best of these Molas are made by transvestites who dress and live as women in the village communities quite accepted by their society. The most famous of these is Lisa and the photo below shows her sewing her name onto a Mola bought by Gill. These Mola makers and fishermen will paddle their dugouts from island to island looking for customers to buy their goods, often spending 6 hours a day travelling just on the off chance of finding a yacht crew who will buy from them.

 

Lisa sewing her name into her Molas for Gill

 
The islands which are mostly uninhabited are everyone’s dream of desert islands with white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, gorgeous surrounding reefs and coconut palm trees swaying over the warm water. So we pick our way through the reefs, drop anchor in sandy bays, swim ashore in clear waters and go exploring. Sometimes it’s like that but there’s always a downside in paradise – some of the beaches are fringed by razor sharp coral making it difficult to land; some of the islands are owned by biting sand flies and mosquitoes and; the windward side of most islands is littered with rubbish washed up on the shore. When you find a good one it’s great and we have found a few! You do need bright sunshine however to show up the reefs as you move around so we tend to sail from island to island between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm when the sun is high. Twelve boats have been wrecked on the surrounding reefs between January and April of this year and many of them are still lying as a reminder to us all that these are difficult waters to navigate.

  

A quiet anchorage

   
Otherwise this is very relaxed cruising, in the mornings after breakfast of fresh fruit, cornflakes and home baked bread we either clean the boat (at least Gill does) or do maintenance jobs from the never ending list or make bread or cakes and in the afternoons we swim, explore the island where we’ve anchored, talk to the Kuna who come by to sell fish, vegetables and fruit from their dugout canoes in our pigeon Spanish, we read ( I’ve been reading War and Peace for the last 6 weeks and nearly half way through!), snorkel on the reefs or go ashore to burn our rubbish (there isn’t any other way to dispose of it, if you give it to the Kuna they tip it in the water on the way home) which is an excuse for a bonfire and we flatten all our cans in our can squasher and give them to the Kuna who can claim back money for recycling them. I gave up fishing as a pastime and source of food as I don’t think there are any fish left and its a complete waste of time. The Kuna hunt them with spearguns and now you hardly see any eating fish on the reefs anymore. It’s easier to buy the fish off the Kuna for a couple of dollars. We also have to shop on the inhabited islands for fresh fruit and veg and when our fridge packed in we could only keep it edible for a couple of days. There is also the social life and mixing with other cruisers and by listening to the radio net each morning you can find out what’s going on and it’s a useful source of information and advice. So all this keeps us pretty busy and out of mischief.

 

The runway at Nargana

 
 

The terminal building, very terminal!

 
Of course life is never that straightforward, there are our resources to manage on the boat to enable us to survive away from civilisation, fuel, electrical power, water all of which are difficult to come by normally but especially here. Fuel has to be transported by Jerry cans in the dinghy and siphoned into our tanks, a lengthy and laborious job. Our main source of electricity is our solar panels which I had fitted in Guatemala; they’re brilliant but they do need the sun to shine. If it doesn’t then we have a wind generator but this is the calm season so most days there is little wind and if that’s the case we have to run the engine but at 5 litres an hour this is an expensive way to generate power and puts hours on the engine, reducing the service life. We have to check the battery state several times a day as it is a crucial resource for us with so many electronics on the boat and fridge and freezer to keep going and iPads and Kindles and phones to charge.  
Water comes to us from the sky and when we do get a tropical downpour it doesn’t take long to fill the tanks and we can have a “free” shower at the same time. The problem however is that this is now 6 weeks into the rainy season and it hasn’t rained much so we had to make for a village at the mouth of one of the rivers and fill up with river water. Fortunately we have dosing chemicals and a good filtration system on board. The tanks hold 700 litres of water and we have a water maker which is electrically driven but we use a lot of fresh water despite having a sea water tap for washing dishes and cooking. We need to shower everyday partly because of the heat but also to wash off the salt when we have been swimming, so a shower each evening is a regular event to prevent sores and keep clean.

 

Taking on water in Aquadup

 
 Washing clothes probably uses the next most water, we only wear shorts and a bikini on the boat and tee shirts ashore which isn’t much but bedding once a week uses a lot. On one occasion we took our washing up the Rio Diablo in the dinghy and washed it in the river much to the amusement of the Kuna Indians who were doing the same (this wasn’t the same river where we got our drinking water). So all you folk back home with your automatic front loaders, think yourselves lucky, it took us four hours to paddle up and down the river, do our washing in the heart of the jungle waist deep in water keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles but you’ll be glad to know we never saw any.

 

Gill working hard as we paddle up river

 
 

A very different laundrette

 
 

The rinse cycle

 
The other issue we always have to be careful with is weather so we pick up daily area forecasts each day on our long range SSB radio from the US or the local net which also gives us the opportunity to stay in touch with friends who are also cruising the San Blas and exchange weather reports. This season is characterised by light variable winds with squalls and thunder storms. In the squalls wind speeds can reach 50 miles an hour or more and come from any direction. If you’re in an anchorage surrounded by reef as most of them are and the wind reverses it can easily pull out the anchor and off you go! This means we sleep lightly and get up to check regularly. If the wind is light then the bugs can fly in sorties out to your boat in search of fresh meat and although we are well protected with mosquito nets they still manage to squeeze in sometimes through the smallest of holes if we are not careful. The other problem with light wind is the heat, especially at night. We have wind scoops to pick up the slightest breeze but if there really is no wind we stew or put on the fans and consume more of our precious electricity.

 

Storm approaching

 
If stuff breaks down out here and you can’t fix it yourself it stays broken, there are no mechanics or electricians and no spares for 500 miles. Two weeks ago our new fridge unit packed in with a gas leak so we only have a freezer (fingers crossed) but nowhere to keep fruit and veg or milk etc. Gill freezes the milk in small containers otherwise it goes off in a day and we have discovered the novelty of snow milk on our cornflakes. We can only keep fruit and veg for a few days but fortunately the Kuna boats come around with mangoes, banana and avocado which seems to be the only available produce. They are fishermen rather than farmers and a number of attempts to get them to grow produce on a commercial scale have all failed? The Colombian boats bring in fresh produce but you have to know which day or you make a long journey to a village only to find the boats arrive tomorrow and they have nothing. The only meat you can buy is chicken but fortunately we stocked our freezer with meat in Guatemala and still have plenty left. it’s not all bad news though, the one thing in plentiful supply is beer! You can’t buy milk but you can buy beer but without a fridge it’s warm, warm lager beer!
The other two things that broke were the toilet pump in the aft heads and one of the rings on the gas hob, fortunately we have two more rings and another toilet up forward but it’s getting tight now because the second one has started to leak and we don’t relish the old bucket and chuck it toilet routine. We are also getting low on gas and our nearest supply is 70 miles away or a day’s sailing.

 

Just another desert island

 
Despite all of these problems in paradise we are enjoying ourselves and meeting up with old friends and relaxing in the sun. It’s still an interesting cruising ground and with 300 islands in the archipelago we are never short of somewhere to go and it’s not very far to the next island, yet another with white sandy beaches, coconut palms, warm seas and reefs. 

Gill showing the way

 You would think with so many islands you would never see anyone but we were anchored in Snug Harbour, a lovely well protected anchorage between three islands when a shout rang out one afternoon while we were reading in the cockpit. It was some Australian friends Nick and Andrea and daughter Millie on Muneera who had just sailed up from Carthagena in Columbia and randomly stopped for a rest at our anchorage, after their 200 mile journey. We sank a few beers while we exchanged news and experiences. They were en route to pick up their other daughter Ella who had been staying in France with other cruising friends and was due to arrive back in Panama before they transited the canal en-route to Australia to complete the girls’ education. It was great to see them again and a fluky coincidence they happened to stop where they did. 

 

The Disney Family leaving on their way to Australia

 
It happened again while we were anchored in the Coco Bandero islands and some friends we last met in a cafe on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands sailed into the anchorage and dropped the hook next to us. Another occasion for catching up and we spent the next couple of weeks cruising off and on, in company with Hella and David.

 

David and Hella from Barra, Scotland

 
As we were coming to the end of our stay here in San Blas we decided to position the boat ready to head off west to Colon and the canal. We had decided to leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to the canal while we went off to the US and Canada in June. The marina did a 6 month low season deal which suited us especially since they had credible repair facilities or so we have been told. A convenient place for us to head off from was the West Lemmon Cays, a group of islands with a nice central anchorage which unfortunately was difficult to get into, through narrow passages in the reefs and a winding channel. We had tried to get in on an earlier occasion but the seas had been quite rough, the light was poor for spotting reefs and the entrance very tight and convoluted, so we went elsewhere. This time the sun was high, the seas had calmed and we made for the waypoint (latitude and longitude) marking the entrance. I turned and went to go in but wasn’t happy with one of the waypoints so I pulled back and re-programmed the plotter and we went back to the entrance point and headed in through the tight channel. This took the entire concentration of us both until we reached the anchorage pool where we breathed a sigh of relief and dropped anchor and had lunch. I should have mentioned that this was on my birthday and one of the surrounding islands had a restaurant which we thought we would dinghy ashore to and check out. I went to the stern to get ready but the dinghy was no longer tied to the aft rail, we had both seen the dinghy when we stopped to reprogram the plotter just outside the entrance so we thought it couldn’t have gone far in the intervening three hours and weighed anchor to go off in search. We scanned the surrounding islands with binoculars and followed the wind direction for two hours without luck. Light was failing so we headed back to the anchorage in the Lemmon Cays to wait for morning and report our loss. We had no way of getting ashore now other than swimming so dinner ashore was out of the question. It put a real damper on my birthday, replacing it and the outboard would cost around $4,000 not to mention the inconvenience in the meantime. The following morning I put out a call on our radio reporting on the Panama Net to alert other cruisers. I also swam to the nearby island with the restaurant and talked to the ferry boat guys asking them to spread the word and offering a reward and telephoned some of the Kuna people we knew on downwind islands and we reported it to the Port Captain in Porvenir. 

 

The Lemmons where we lost our dinghy

 
Our friends Hella and David immediately came to our rescue sailing up from a nearby anchorage. David took me around the surrounding islands in their dinghy but we saw nothing. I plotted the wind direction and mapped an area out where it might have gone, drifting towards the mainland and Gill and I decided to search this area, David and Hella kindly loaned us their kayak so we could go ashore when required and the following morning we headed south towards the mainland. On the first island we drew a blank but asked them to keep a look out and I distributed cards with our local telephone number on.

 

Coming back with good news

 
As we were approaching the second island, Carti we sailed in alongside some other cruisers on “Blue Sky” who suggested by radio that we follow them and advised we spoke to a man called Elojio who had his finger in lots of pies. As we dropped anchor they told us they already had his father John on board and he had told them they had our dinghy. We had already met John on a previous visit to Carti and I had already telephoned his other son Germain to explain our predicament and he had offered to keep a lookout. Fantastic, the father then came over to our boat in his dugout and we welcomed him on board, sat him down and gave him a beer. His conversation went all round the houses but no mention of a dinghy, so we asked him directly if he had it, in our limited Spanish, he looked puzzled and said no, it was clear by now that he was very drunk, he suggested we phone his other son Elejio which I then did. 
Elejio was on a nearby island ferrying tourists and explained he would be back at 5.00pm, so we waited. I went ashore on time and he was waiting by the jetty off their house. He told me he didn’t have the dinghy but that he knew where it was. He had visited this island the day before and had seen our dinghy in a fisherman’s hut. He had offered to take it off them to return it to us but the fishermen wouldn’t let him. The dinghy was on an Island 400 yards from where we had been anchored in the Lemmon Cays, at the side of the entrance channel. He showed me a photo he had taken of it on his mobile phone which confirmed it was mine. The fishermen had seen the dinghy come adrift from Romano and paddled out to get it, stowing it out of sight and hoping to sell it. 
They told him they believed they could get a reward of $2000 for returning it to its rightful owner, he laughed and told them they were dreaming so they asked how about $500 as this was the usual fee for returning a lost dinghy (a fortune to a Kuna fisherman). Elejio asked me what I was prepared to pay, I explained the dinghy was 20 years old and the outboard 10 years old and asked him what he thought a fair finder’s fee would be. He suggested I start at $50 and negotiate. I gave him $20 for his help and set off back to the boat to tell Gill the good news. 
We set off the following morning dropped anchor and Gill and I kayaked across to the island, to be met by one of the fishermen on the shore. I asked if he had my dinghy, which I described and he took us to see the head man there. Chairs were brought out from the thatched huts and we started a circuitous conversation. Eventually getting fed up with this I asked if he had my dinghy he asked for a description to ensure I was the rightful owner, the cheek of him, but I wanted my dinghy back and had to bite my tongue. When I had satisfied him and told him the age of the kit, he asked for $100 reward for “saving it”, a far cry from his original ideas and a better place to start negotiations. I asked to see it before agreeing to anything and he took us into his hut and there at the back were the outboard, oars and anchor but no dinghy. His dragon of a wife asked repeatedly for the money but I asked to see the dinghy as well. It was locked in another thatched hut but sitting on a trestle in apparently unharmed condition. Much to his wife’s disgust we eventually settled on $70 which was a lot really to get my own dinghy back from these thieves.
When I related the story to other cruisers on the radio net the following day they said I was “really lucky” as most paid $500 to get their dinghies back. Now I tie it on properly with a second line, it may be 20 years old but it’s a Tinker and a first class dinghy in pretty good condition for its age. The outboard Gill would happily have given to the Kuna, it’s very temperamental and needs a lot of coaxing, but I can operate it!

 

Gill paddling her own canoe

 
After returning the kayak with our heartfelt thanks to Hella and David we set off back to the Lemmon Cays ready to sail to Colon at the entrance to the canal where we were going to leave the boat for the rest of the rainy season. We had been invited by other British cruisers we had met on and Island called Aridup to visit their house in a village on the way to Colon called Jose Pobre. They were taking their pet iguana to shore on Aridup which means Iguana Island, for some hibiscus flowers, which they like. In fact they decided it would be happier there than on the boat and left it happily munching on its own island. We said we would drop in to see Philip on our way through, Linda his partner would be back in the UK by then. We had a great 45 mile sail to Isla Linton, 6 miles from Jose Pobre, in fair winds and sunshine and dropped anchor in a lovely sheltered bay. Sadly however, our freezer gave up the ghost at this point so we had neither fridge or freezer and in the tropics that’s not good! I managed to fit a spare water pump to the freezer and we managed by switching it on and off manually to use it as a fridge until we reached Shelter Bay Marina in Colon where we could buy produce on a daily basis.

Next day we sailed to Jose Poble bay and anchored off the village in 4 metres of water. The bay was exposed to the North and we spent a rather rolly first night. Philip came out to the boat for dinner in his kayak armed with a bottle of red wine and four mangos from his garden. After dinner Philip set off back ashore in the dark, a brave venture for a man who professes not to swim. The following morning we rowed ashore through the reef to find Philip and go for a walk around the next point for a swim in a nearby sandy bay. We spotted his catamaran berthed at the bottom of his garden and went up to the his extraordinary house built into the jungle covered hillside. 

Philips house in Jose Pobre

Philip built this house by carrying thousands of tons of sand and cement and all the wood he needed for its construction, by boat from Portobello 8 miles away by sea and lugging it up the hill to the site, a monumental task by a very resourceful man.

 

Gill and Philip on the veranda

 
When Philip bought the plot 12 years ago for a very modest sum there was only a wooden shack there where he lived while he was building the current house. There is a well in the garden and electricity but that’s it.

 

A hand built staircase from driftwood

 
The view from the property is spectacular over the bay and we sat on the veranda watching a torrential downpour which scotched our plans for a walk. We met some of Philips neighbours, sank a few beers and had a magnificent dinner which included his famed dauphinoise potatoes.

The next day we tried again to have our walk but Philip had a badly infected leg from insect bites and was unable to make it and the heavens opened again so we couldn’t make it on our own. Philip furnished us with bananas, lemon grass and mangoes from garden and told us where we could find more mangoes in the village. We found the spot and collected pounds of mangoes which Gill planned to serve up for breakfast and turn into mango chutney. Back to the boat, ready for our 6 mile trip to Portobelo the following morning.

We entered Portobelo’s large protected harbour passing Drake’s Island where sir Francis is buried in a lead lined coffin and dropped anchor at the head of the bay, off the village. This was the main port for shipping Spanish gold back to Europe and as a result was heavily defended by forts. We went ashore by dinghy to shop and explore, we visited the Fort and went off to walk up the steep hill behind the village where there was a spectacular view of the bay.

  
 As we started our ascent through some fallen leaves there was a commotion, Gill leapt backwards shouting “run, run” and fell into a ditch. I was in front and at first at first didn’t see what was happening and then I saw a brown snake about 3 ft long about 2 ft from me wriggling away through the leaves with a mouse in its jaws. It had struck at the mouse just as we had started to walk through the leaves which was fortunate for us, otherwise we might have been the target. I have never seen a snake in the open that close before and to see it make its kill was quite special but sobering.

  
Back on the boat we prepared dinner from our dwindling stocks of food and settled down for the night when a cockroach ambled through the cockpit. Always a signal to grab sprays and flatteners. After this I went off in search of some large ants I had spotted on deck and in the process of spraying them noticed that a catamaran which had been anchored some distance away was now 15 feet from our boat. 10 o’clock at night is not the best time to have to re-anchor but we had no choice and moved further out into the bay under a full moon which helped illuminate the scene.

The following morning we set off on our final leg of this phase to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina at the head of the Panama Canal. As we approached we passed through a number of ships at anchor waiting to transit and called up Canal Control at San Cristobal to get permission to pass through the breakwater. They gave us clearance, although we still had to dodge the ships exiting the canal. They should really have held all traffic for us, yeah right!

We followed the buoys into Shelter Bay and moored up with a perfect docking, even although we had had no Marina practice for several months, what a crew! This was the end of another phase of our travels. In a weeks time after we have put the boat to bed we are heading up to New York for 4 days and then on to Canada, but that’s the next episode.
Many of you must be wondering what has happened to us as we haven’t posted a blog for a while, but Internet is very limited here and works off the very variable mobile phone system. Weeks go by without word from home or from us, twenty years ago no one would have thought anything of it but in this day of instant communications friends and family start to worry if they don’t hear from us on a regular basis. We have spent 2 months without Internet except for two days in Nargana, an island near the mainland and even there the signal was so weak it took hours to download and send emails. So for those of you we haven’t responded to, apologies but we weren’t ignoring you.

The next blog will be New York and Canada in a few weeks time, now we have Internet again.

Pirates of Providencia

After two months of frustrating delay caused by my broken ankles we finally left Roatan in the Bay Islands with Jocelyn our new French Canadian crew member on board and headed south about 30 miles to the islands of Cayos Cochinos for our first sail for a while. It was a glorious day with 15 knots of wind on the beam and we covered the distance quickly at 6.5 to 7 knots, a great introduction for Joce, or so we thought. We arrived at the islands and sought out an anchorage in the lee of Cochinos Grande, but couldn’t get our anchor to hold in the turtle grass bottom, so we tried around another point only to be met by a local in his canoe who told us that would be fined if we anchored there. It turned out that the military controlled the islands and only permitted mooring on their designated buoys at a cost of $30.00. We returned to the earlier bay but found it too shallow for us to reach some buoys inshore. At that point the military turned up and told us to anchor in the bay at a spot indicated by them, apparently the buoys had been destroyed in a storm.

We anchored as instructed and only found out later when we snorkelled out to check that the anchor had set that we were over a coral bed – not good. The soldiers wanted $30 per day of stay so we decided to leave the following morning and head for the island of Guanaja, about 45 miles to the North East. We intended to check out of Honduras here before going on to Providencia, a Colombian island some 400 miles away. The wind was right on our nose so unfortunately we had to motor the whole way, Joce was very subdued and kept himself apart.

Arriving at Guanaja we crept over the reef with only a couple of inches to spare and anchored in Sandy Bay. That night we went ashore to Manati, a restaurant which had been recommended to us, run by Annette and Claus, a German couple. Monday was their “kitchen closed night” but Annette took pity on us and we had a typical German dinner finished off with chocolate made by her son.

 

One of Guanaja’s stilted houses

 
 

Typical canal between the houses

 
The island has no roads so everyone travels around by boat and the only town is built on stilts on an off lying reef with canals between the houses like a Little Venice. In the morning we all went there by launch to check out and to add Joce to our crew list, however, this was the moment he chose to tell us he wasn’t coming with us but wanted to return home. We had hints before hand that he wasn’t a happy cruiser but we were disappointed in the way he broke the news in the immigration office and that we wouldn’t have his support to get us to Panama, especially with my freshly mended ankles.

Finding crew who fit into the boat’s routine, who are competent and trustworthy sailors and have personalities compatible with the existing crew is a notoriously tricky business. With Jocelyn we exchanged many emails, went through his and our expectations, talked on Skype and I thought from this that he would fit the bill. How wrong I was, he hadn’t been on the boat a day when he insisted on checking all our stores for “use by” dates, he wanted Gill to throw out the flour because it had weevils in it (standard on cruising boats in the tropics and we just sift them out), was fussy about what he would eat despite telling us he would eat anything, had no concept of sailing at sea, was nervous about doing night watches and proved to be a loner with poor social skills. It was as well he left the boat at that time but he did teach us a lesson in crew selection and interviewing, his expectations of cruising were completely unrealistic and I hadn’t realised, despite our extensive communications prior to his arrival. Many people think it’s a life of gin and tonics at sundown, swimming and snorkelling and visiting desert islands but in practice it’s mostly hard work with some time off for play.

Gill and I left the following morning in flat calm for the part of the trip we were least looking forward to, 180 miles straight into the trade winds. The forecast however was for light winds and that’s how it proved to be. We still had to motor for a day and a half but it wasn’t uncomfortable and our fears weren’t realised. Our friends Gordon and Gillian on “N-aimless” went a day ahead of us and said they would wait for us at a group of cays on the reef some sixty miles off the eastern most point of Honduras, “the corner”. After this we hoped to be able to sail with the easterly trade winds on our beam.

We radioed ahead and they gave us directions through the reef to where they were anchored, in the middle of the sea, just behind a small coral mound you could hardly call an island. We were well protected by the reef around us from waves but not wind. That afternoon we went ashore in Gordon and Gillian’s dinghy to find the island covered in hundreds of stacked lobster pots and the main inhabitants, nesting brown Boobies. Mum watched the chick while Dad went fishing and made the run back through marauding Frigate birds who can’t catch their own fish so steal it from other birds. They will also attack unprotected chicks and we even saw them trying to steal fish during the beak to beak transfer from parent to chick. It was back to our boat for sundowners and to watch a beautiful sunset in this bizarre anchorage in the middle of nowhere.  

 

Lots of boobies nesting

 
 

Mother and chick on the Hobby Cays

  

Where’s my lunch, I hope its not fish again!

 After another days resting we set off for the Colombian island of Providencia, 100 miles off the coast of Nigaragua and a 190 mile journey with 2 overnight sails, something we hadn’t tried before with only Gill and I, preferring to limit our sailing to one night only at sea, when we are able. The seas were kind to us although the wind taunted us until we cleared the large reef area off the east coast of Honduras, by playing just off the nose, not enough to sail, so we had to motor/sail for another 70 miles until we were clear of the reef and could turn 90 degrees south. Gordon and Gillian wanted to motor/ sail all the way to Providencia so they left at noon, 5 hours behind us. Around 2pm the following day we could see them catching us up and it was good to have someone as company.

We then had a good sail in variable winds but just right to make landfall at 9.00am on Providencia. We reefed sail when the wind increased to keep the speed right for this arrival. Suddenly, just after we had reefed around 11pm the radio burst into life, it was Gordon, they had moved ahead of us under power and he warned us that they had been hit by 30 knot winds from nowhere and that the squall was headed our way. Fortunately, we already had our sails reefed but even then our speed kicked up from 3 knots to 7 knots in a matter of seconds however we were well balanced to ride it out.

We arrived off Providencia at around 9am as planned and as we came in to the anchorage radioed to Gordon to let him know we were coming in, the local checking in agent (Mr Bush) picked up our transmission and we were instructed to come to his offices straight away to clear in to this Colombian Island. So we dropped the anchor in the lovely bay there and jumped into Gordon’s dinghy and were whisked off to check in with immigration and the port captain. Mr Bush ran the general hardware store in which he also had a desk and a few chairs for those checking in, so we sat among the shop hardware for the lengthy check in process. The other officials came to his store to check our passports and issue our cruising certificate. These check ins are always slightly weird when you have been up all night, slightly spaced out and you launch into formal immigration procedures with officials in a strange country and every country has its own process and forms and charges. Here we had to pay $150, whereas Honduras cost us nothing to check in and out and you always wonder how much is official and how much is for the back pocket when charges are high. Some countries insist you use agents (always more expensive) and some you don’t, Mr Bush was an agent so we guessed he took his cut from our fees. We will probably be the last generation who can do this sort of trip. It gets more and more expensive year on year and the game is on to see how much money the various countries can extract from cruising boats which is a shame because cruisers bring financial benefit especially to island communities and it will eventually prove a killing of the golden goose through greed by a few.

 

The lovely bay in Providencia

 
I called this chapter Pirates of Providencia because the island sits just off the Spanish Main and has a perfect horseshoe anchorage, safe for marauding pirates. It was home to Cap’n Morgan and his moll and many other Buccaneers and the family names in the local cemetery here show names on the graves like Hawkins (Jim lad!) Robinson, Hooker (lots of them), Archibold, Bryan and Black. The Island was also a main slave trading centre, they grew tobacco and traded this for slaves. The island is protected by a tricky reef and there are high points around the anchorage to mount canon, it was perfect for their purpose!

 

Harbour at Providencia

 
The island is very pretty with proper hills, trees and beaches and we hired a beach buggy for a day with Gordon and Gillian to tour the island. It takes 3 hours to drive all the way round but we spent a day exploring all the nooks and stopped off at South West Bay, a spectacularly beautiful bay and beach for a swim and a lovely lunch of lobster and fish at a restaurant where our table was set out under the palms, digging our toes into the soft sand we dined well.

 

The beach in Southwest Bay

  

Gordon and Gillian tucking into lunch

 
We continued travelling round the island to the east side which was protected by a long reef with an extraordinary array of colours in the water from the palest turquoise to the deepest blue. Gillian (as opposed to Gill) had a liking for visiting cemeteries and we visited yet another one behind a quaint old church, equally interesting, with plaques commemorating more British settlers from the 18th century. Before our return to the “city” with a little time still to spare on our rental, we decided to utilise our rented mini-moke to collect fuel in 5 gall jerry cans from the local petrol station. This was a lot of easier than previous trips where we had had to lug the cans 100 yards from the petrol station to the dinghy and ferry them over to the boat anchored half a mile away. It was too shallow to get the Romano any nearer

 

one of the old cemetries

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Upon recommendation from Gillian, Gill and I then visited a shoreside restaurant to sample their famed homemade corn ice cream, an unusual flavour but very rich and creamy.

 

Colombian navy patrolling at sunset

 
The following day after checking the weather and getting a favourable forecast we cleared out with Mr Bush and left at the crack of dawn the following morning for a two and half day sail to Porvenir in the San Blas islands of Panama a journey of around 250 miles.
The weather forecast proved accurate and we had fair winds to carry us down to Panama which was a relief considering we were shorthanded and I was still very wobbly on my ankles.
As we left Providencia we were escorted from the island by a large school (fifty or more) dolphins who stayed with us for the best part of an hour, jumping and performing alongside the boat, each competing for attention. It was interesting to see their communication with each other and instructions being given by one of the larger members of the school with a slap of the tail. Each time this happened some of the smaller dolphins turned for home until we were left with ten and then finally one (who waved his flipper and wished us bon voyage!!!)

 

Our lovely send off with the dolphins

 
Mid-way we picked up an unusual radar target moving very slowly (3 knots), which as it came into view, it turned out to be a large ocean-going tug towing an old and partly dismantled aircraft carrier and heading for Houston, as indicated by the AIS, we guessed for scrapping.

 

Aircraft carrier under tow off Nicaragua

 
During the night we crossed the main shipping lanes into Panama and the Canal, which was a busy time watching the tracks of numerous ships crossing in front and behind us. This kept us awake playing dodgems until we had cleared the area.
Because of the many reefs around Porvenir, which alone sported two wrecks of recently grounded yachts, we had timed it to arrive in daylight hours and this worked to plan arriving off Porvenir at around 10.00 am.  

  
We dinghied ashore to check in on this tiny sandy island where we discovered a 400 yard concrete airstrip which runs its entire length, together with a couple of shacks and a scruffy little hotel. There are regular flights coming in each day with charter crews. One of the shacks housed the Immigration, Customs and Port Captain’s offices where “piracy” was the name of the game. The fees demanded by the various offices amounted to almost $US400 which didn’t include an additional tax payable to the Kuna National Congresso of $US60 for one month’s cruising in the islands. This was the most expensive place we have yet visited and we were soon to discover that further charges were yet to be levied by the Kuna chiefs on each of their islands we visited.

After 800 miles of sailing from Guatemala we had finally arrived at our next cruising ground with the intention of staying here for a couple of months to explore the 300 or so desert islands that make up the San Blas archipelago.