This January has thrown up a few highlights; the incredible concerts being unveiled every day by Celtic Connections has to be among the best of them. I'm spending much of every day with a world-class concert coming through my speakers in my own house. And what a fantastic way of bringing people together - shared experience is one of the finest things about going to a concert; and it's warming to know that so many of my friends are also watching these shows.
The weather is another source of variety - Cullivoe has been stunningly beautiful at times. On more nights than not, there have been starry skies; frosty ground that crunches underfoot, and the immense background rumble of waves breaking.
Especially at night, when it's this quiet, I can hear so much - the deepest sound is the steady sub-bass of swells landing on rocks over a mile away to the north-west; the more regular bass sounds thump from the closer headlands to the north, near Breckon; and the steady, slow beat and hiss of breakers on the Unst shore, Brough, and the Papil and Kellister beaches within sight of the house competes a complex sound picture.
With the absence of light, I can see so much more; on more than one night the aurora and the stars have lit my path along the road through Cullivoe.
So despite the anxiety that living through a pandemic induces, and the steady worry of the loss of livelihood, there is a lot to take in and to be inspired by. Today I'm looking back again at my first Pacific voyage aboard the tallship Søren Larsen, rejoining the story here as the ship approached Galápagos.
Stay safe and well,
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On another windless day - it was easy to see how ships got stuck in the 'doldrums', this equatorial region where the wind is virtually absent, for weeks on end in the pre-engine days - we continued to motor over the glassy-smooth surface of the Pacific, rolling over the lazily undulating ocean swells; a fierce tropical sun overhead and our destination now the Galápagos Islands.
On the afternoon of 13th February, two days after departing Coco Island, I had the afternoon watch when we sighted our first other ship since departing Panamá; what appeared to be a tune fishing vessel at eight miles distance, right ahead.
Of course, we were on a collision course, and as I made an alteration of course to starboard, I saw a helicopter lift from the deck of the other ship. Six pairs of binoculars, mine included, followed the small chopper as it rose, crossed our track - then took a dip by the bow, and plunged into the Pacific with a great plume of spray.
I increased Søren Larsen's engine to full ahead and, giving the helmsman a course to steer for the crash position, dashed down the companionway to fetch Captain Jim. We prepared our rescue boat for launching, got medical gear on deck and ready.
As we made best speed, we watched the tuna fishing vessel, faster and closer than us, reach the crash postion and stop; a crane swung out from her deck. When they at last answered the VHF they informed us that the two helicopter crew had been recovered and were fine; they had the wreckage in tow; no medical assistance required.
The 'Taurus Tuna', Callsign YYEK out of Venezuela, was two miles away and steaming east, away from us, at 14 knots by the time we reached the spot; leaving no sign that this strange incident had ever happened.
We resumed our south-westerly course, and three days later crossed the equator just before sunset, whence an elaborately dressed creature known as the 'Bilge Monster', bearing a vague resemblance to Terri, appeared on deck. Draped in seaweed, lank hair hanging in shades of blue, red and green, she brought the message that the Søren Larsen’s crew had not been forgotten about, and that Neptune himself would visit as soon as the vessel departed the Galapagos.
She subjected our crew to a series of tests to establish who were 'Shellbacks' - mariners who had already crossed the equator - and who were 'Pollywogs', and thus making their first equator crossing, and required to pay ther dues to King Neptune.
(Note: The term 'Pollywog' derives from the Middle-English word 'pollywig' or 'pollwygge', meaning 'Tadpole'. The term 'Shellback' is a more recent one, indicating mariners who had been at sea long enough to have shells growing on their backs.)
The Bilge Monster assured us that all dues would be paid as soon as the ship was at seaonce more on leaving Galápagos; I was glad I had brought my certificate from my own first crossing, five years earlier, aboard a tanker in the Indian Ocean. Today's crossing meant I had traversed 'the line' in all three oceans - Indian, Atlantic and Pacific - surely well on my way to being a shellback!
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On 16th February, as I took the six-hourly meteorological observations that we sent back to the New Zealand met service, I noted that the sea temperature had dropped by 5 degrees, indicating that we were now feeling the effects of the cooler Peru, or Humboldt, current.
This current sweeps up the west coast of South America in a huge upwelling flow of cool, nutrient rich water, feeding the enormous anchovy and sardine shoals off Chile and Peru, the source of one of the world’s largest commercial fisheries. From there it continues north until it washes past the Galápagos, bringing life to the marine ecosystem of the islands, and maintaining the sea temperature at a relatively cool twenty-one degrees Celsius for most of the year.
Meanwhile, the warm El Niño current flows west out of the Gulf of Panamá, meeting the cooler water and normally brushing the islands in December when the Peru Current is at its weakest, bringing warmer temperatures and rain to the area.
It is this combination of warm and cold currents that give Galápagos its unique and vibrant ecosystem; it is also this dependence on the currents that renders the wildlife of the islands so prone to disruption when they do not behave as normal.
The sea and air took on a different look and feel; the sea became less clear, greener, and more opaque; and the horizon gained a wan, washed-out look that would remain throughout our time around Galapagos. The air was filled with Frigate birds and Boobies; a pod of porpoises swam languidly across our bow; there were dolphins jumping. There were even a few seals, so far out to sea.
Jim took us closer in to the island of Genovesa and I manned the mast, keeping look out from hugh above as he eased the ship into this volcanic crater lagoon, with all hands on deck far below reaching for cameras and binoculars, eager for a glimpse of some more Galapagos wildlife. The steep, arid sides of the island sloped down to the sea but, with no viable anchorage, we continued on our way to Puerto Ayura on the island of Santa Cruz, another eighty miles to the south-west.
The varying currents also gave the islands one of their earlier names - 'Las Islas Encantadas'. Making slow speeds due to the absence of winds in the region, the first Spanish sailors who sighted the islands were at the mercy of the currents; navigating by dead reckoning, the perception was that the islands were found in a different position every time, and thus enchanted.
A combination of superstition and the difficulty of navigating helped keep the islands uninhabited until the twentieth century. Galápagos is one of the few places on earth to have apparently no indigenous human population. The earliest reports we have of the islands come from passing visits by mariners including Alexander Selkirk, DeFoe’s real-life Robinson Crusoe, in 1708; and his once-buccaneer captain William Dampier, on several occasions during the early 18th century.
American whaling vessels regularly stopped here during the early 19th century, stacking live tortoises upside-down in their holds to eat later, and putting goats ashore for a future food source; and of course, in the 1830s, Charles Darwin, naturalist, arrived aboard the British survey ship 'Beagle'.
People from South America, or possibly Polynesia, had reached the islands before their European discovery, evidenced by the small coconut plantations and pottery remains left here; however these people do not appear to have remained in the islands.
European settlers began to trickle in after the Panama Canal was constructed in 1914 – a group of Norwegians, a few German families. But it was only in the latter part of the 20th Century that a significant population began to grow, supporting the fishing, tourism, and farming industries. Now the population is 30,000 and growing; and this increase, together with ever-rising visitor numbers, puts a strain on the unique and fragile ecosystem.
We anchored in Academy Bay; here our voyage crew left us for five days. They had been signed up on a five-day tour into the National Park, where only licensed tour operators may enter; Søren Larsen would not be sailing into those areas. Instead, with the ship half-empty, it was a good opportunity to push on with some of the endless maintenance that a wooden sailing ship demands.
It was also an opportunity for what I later would call 'crew maintenance' - ensuring the crew remained in good condition by giving them a couple of days of leave! So, while half the full-time crew had their shore leave, and with only Captain Jim, Engineer Pete, Lucy, Jima, Sally Anne and me on board, we worked our way through first mate Sal's job list.
I always enjoyed these days with a smaller crew; life was more informal, and it seemed to me that we got a lot done with just a few of us working on our tasks without distraction, enjoying our work, taking our breaks when convenient instead of at formal smoko times.
Barefoot and bare-shouldered we worked in the rig tarring shrouds or varnishing yards, or on the deck-house roof repairing boats. Puffy altocumulus drifted across the pastel-cyan sky; dry brush and dark rocks lined the low headlands that enclosed the bay. Behind the jetty and the little town, indistinct mountains rose into the haze.
This was no peaceful anchorage, however; ships came and went constantly, day and night, unloading pallets of goods and 4 wheel drive vehicles onto flat barges, taking alarmingly large angles of heel as their cargoes were hoisted and swung out over the side by creaking derricks. More than once a rusty-looking vessel anchored uncomfortably close to us; we rigged a second anchor from Søren Larsen's stern, hoping this would keep us clear of any close-quarters situations as ships swung in the night.
In all life was pleasant but we ached to get over to the shore, so close, and begin exploring!
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Dropped off at the jetty for two days leave, we were immediately amongst the dozens of scaly black marine iguanas that basked and swam around the rocks. I was startled by a noise from behind – a “Hawwwk… ptoo!” that sounded like a man clearing the back of his throat noisily, and spitting. I turned around, but no-one was there.
I watched as another of the iguanas turn its head to the side and gobbed a mouthful of white foam onto the rocks with the same hawking sound. These amazing creatures drink sea water, absorbing the fresh water from it, and spitting out the brine that remains.
Galápagos Penguins splashed on the surface as they swam across the bay; the iguanas roamed the rocks showing little fear of us, all within a few metres of the busy pier where the lighters and forklift trucks continued to offload cargo from the ships.
Lucy and I found some bicycles for hire and cycled up the mountainside to Bella Vista, enjoying the view over the harbour and across the sea to Isabella Island. The air has an unusual quality here, probably due to the cold seas that surround the islands, giving every view the appearance of a watercolour painting; the sky a washed out light blue merging barely-perceptibly into the light blue sea. Puffy high clouds drift lazily. The terrain was dry, light green brush growing from a faded chocolate-coloured soil; the bleaching sun beat down, hot through the haze but the wind, blowing lightly, was cool and soft.
At the Darwin Research Station we met a very old tortoise that had known Charles Darwin himself; and 'Lonesome George', the last of his species of Pinta Island Tortoises, now sadly deceased.
The next morning we cycled to the beach at Tortuga Bay, a mile-long beach two miles west of Puerto Ayura. The sand was marked only with the tracks of two marine iguanas; the gently breaking waves were cool enough to shock the growing heat of the day from our skin. It was the perfect place to relax for a few hours before returning to our ship.
Relaxing with friends, Tortuga Bay.
Back onboard, our voyage crew returned filled with stories of wildlife and adventures from their five days in the national park. We raised our anchor in the morning and sailed the forty miles to the rocky anchorage at Puerto Villamil, on Isabella island.
Here, the Galápagos cormorants and blue-footed boobies stood on the rocks; Galápagos sea lions basked in the sun on cabin tops and decks of the half-dozen small local craft; we never did discover how they were able to haul their bodies up the three metres of vertical topside to get there.
Our time in these islands was almost done; but we had one last mission here. We were lower on fresh water than we would have preferred when setting out on a 2,000 mile passage to Easter Island (with no likelihood of loading water at the other end, either). Captain Jim had been informed that the only way to take on water was to load from one of the fire trucks that served the islands' main airport, on the island of Baltra.
On our last chaotic morning here, Jim maneouvred Søren Larsen through the little channel to the Baltra ferry pier. With little room to spare on either side, and even less clearance under our keel, we moored between an anchor and a single stern line to the shore, and with all the fire hoses we could muster, succeeded in filling our water tanks with fresh, clean and drinkable, but slightly rubber-tainted water. This process was not helped by having to leave the berth mid-way through to allow the ferry to berth; and it was evening before we were ready to sail. The firemen were amused however at this break from routine, and swapped t-shirts with some of us as a souvenir of the experience!
With our water tanks finally full and our departure paperwork signed, we slipped our lines and carefully motored clear of the little channel and, with Santa Cruz rising to port, Isabella to Starboard, headed out to sea.
A marine iguana on the rocks at Tortuga Bay
Tortoises at the Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayura
Stowing the gaff topsail, 25 metres above the deck, involves a degree of contortion!