Challenging Passages in a Less Infamous Triangle

Though the Bermuda, or Devil’s, Triangle of the Atlantic is by far the most infamous of the so-called triangles of water identified as inexplicably perilous to voyagers and aviators, we’ve spent some portion of three seasons afloat, creating our personal mythology of another challenging triangle. This other triangle, in the Pacific Ocean, and with less than half the area of the Bermuda, has become an increasingly popular route as more and more voyaging sailors leave Golfo de Panamá for Ecuador, stay in one of the two marinas there for one or more seasons, sail west from coastal Ecuador to the famed Islas de los Galápagos, and from the Galápagos return to the Golfo de Panamá.

Unlike the mythology of that larger nautical phenomenon in the North Atlantic, the tales of sailors’ adventures in this triangle have none of the stuff of the inexplicable that seems to re-invent the laws of physics, nothing that suggests either extraterrestrial influences or supernatural events. Neither we, nor any of our ocean voyaging acquaintances, have encountered anything so mysterious as to resist logical explanation. Yet the last four of the five voyages we’ve made along one of the sides of this triangle have bedeviled us in one curious way or another.

Things that go bump in the night
After we’d made an easy passage along the first leg of this triangle, south from Panamá to Puerto Lucía Yacht Club on the southern coast of Ecuador, we put our 45-foot ketch Carricklee on the hard at the yacht club for the summer. In the fall, we returned to prepare for the second leg, the 600-mile passage slightly north of west from Puerto Lucía to the Galápagos. Along about the fifth day out, we met up with a mystifying unidentified floating object.

Slightly more than 100 miles from landfall at Isla Cristóbal, the easternmost of the islands in the Galápagos Islands, we were both in the cockpit under a bright, sun-washed sky. In 15-knot winds, the wind vane steered the boat easily on a close reach. Without warning, our heavy boat lurched and the bow rose sharply. We knew we’d hit something more solid than the waves breaking on the port bow. Immediately, we each hopped out of the cockpit onto opposite side decks, scanning the ocean on either side and aft for whatever we’d hit. Only the waves interrupted the surface of the ocean.

Then we turned our attention to the boat, concerned that such an impact had holed the hull. Our quick inspection of the bilge forward and amidships, under the engine, revealed no water ingress. Back on deck, we realized the wind vane was no longer maintaining the course, and the large genoa on the head stay was sagging off to leeward. Whatever we’d bumped had broken the bobstay at the lower end where the wire enters the swaged fitting. Although the bowsprit on our boat is relatively short and stout, it couldn’t long survive with the additional strain the large genoa was now putting on it, so we hastily rolled up the sail.

To stabilize the broken bobstay, now taking nicks out of the gel coat each time it swung into the hull, we could do no more than tie the loose end to the bow pulpit. Among our spares were replacement wire and Sta-lok fittings to make up another bobstay, but the wind and seas were big enough to dissuade us from attempting a repair underway.

We thought we could safely leave the main up because the intermediate forward stay on our staysail ketch would prevent the main mast from rocking back and forth, as long as the winds remained light. To balance the boat, we set the staysail and sailed, now more slowly, on toward Isla Cristóbal, puzzling over what UFO had bumped into us …

Despite our having balanced the boat, the wind vane, a Saye’s Rig, was still unable to keep to the course. Carefully examining the steering mechanism at the stern, we located a crack in the trombone-shaped stainless steel tubing that fastens to the boat’s rudder, which encloses and is guided by the vane’s rudder, turning with the wind. Apparently, the object that had broken the bobstay had also fractured this vulnerable tubing so the vane rudder could no longer control the boat rudder.

We still had steerage at the helm because the full keel on Carricklee had protected the boat’s rudder, but we had lost the use of the wind vane until we could get the tubing welded.

With darkness approaching and the wind and seas building, we dropped the mainsail to prevent damage to the main mast and ran through the night under mizzen, staysail and diesel power.

By 0900 the following morning we had the anchor down at Cerro Brujo, a quiet cove on the protected northwest shore of Isla Cristóbal, where we fabricated and installed the new bobstay.

Next we swam along the hull, looking for further damage. Other than two gouges going clear through the multiple layers of bottom paint to the gel coat, immediately below the waterline five feet aft of the starboard bow, we could see no damage. Whatever Carricklee had run into it must have been floating at or just below the surface of the water so that we’d been unable to see it either before or after the collision. Although we won’t ever know what we hit, the gouges on the hull indicate it wasn’t a whale.
The mystery object could have been a shipping container, some of which break loose from ships with some regularity, we hear. But, if so, we were lucky to have merely scraped a corner of it. However, after three voyages up a few of the rivers of the Darién, where branches, limbs, trees, boards, posts and other debris rushed down the mountain slopes and out to sea, we think we’ve found a likely suspect.
Each time we took our boat into the remote Darién of southeastern Panamá, on the border with Colombia, we encountered man-made debris, numerous stout limbs, and even entire trees floating rapidly down the tidal rivers and, frequently, out into Bahía de San Miguel (a large bay on the Pacific Ocean into which many of the Darién rivers flow). And the tributaries of Bahía de San Miguel are but a portion of numerous rivers along the coasts of Panamá, Colombia and Ecuador carrying weighty debris down to the sea.

Adding to the danger this debris poses to boats transiting the Pacific Ocean within hundreds of miles of Bahía de San Miguel, some of these floating hazards will have been at sea long enough to have become so water logged they float almost totally below the surface.

Traffic on the crowded highway
Sailors who’ve made the passage either north or south between Panamá and Ecuador have dubbed this favored course – between 80° and 81° W – “Highway 80.” Not only do voyaging sailors favor this course; so do many of the ships going toward or coming from the Panamá Canal, though perhaps for different reasons.

Voyaging sailors regularly choose this course because on it they remain at least 100 miles offshore of the reportedly dangerous Colombia coast.

With an excess of 15,000 vessels transiting the canal annually and a significant portion of those approaching or departing from the south, that popular course of Highway 80 can be busy. On one of our passages between Panamá and Ecuador, we passed 23 ships in three days, the majority of them at night. On land, that amount of traffic is nothing. In the open ocean, 100 miles offshore, that number can keep cruising sailors busy, for the crew may be cautiously following the movements of each separate vessel for as long as an hour.

Only one of our encounters with ships in our voyages along this course gave us more than the usual cautionary concern. As we were following three ships on radar one night, two going our way and one coming toward us, the oncoming ship abruptly altered course to port, seemingly coming onto a collision course with our boat. The ship was only a mile away, an alarming proximity for an unwieldy commercial vessel traveling as much as 20 to 30 knots. We hailed the vessel to alert the crew of our presence. The captain replied he had us on radar and had already reduced the engine speed, and our two vessels passed starboard to starboard with a half-mile clearance.

Although ships are larger and less maneuverable and therefore pose a greater threat, most of our harrowing encounters in this triangle have been with local fishing fleets. From coastal harbors, the large fishing boats head offshore, towing a string of four to six large 28- to 30-foot fiberglass lanchas with two or three crewmen in each. Once offshore, as far as 100 miles, in our experience, the nets are set and then the men in these lanchas spend the next days and nights tending these nets.

During this time, the lanchas will sometimes be moving around, frequently without lights to warn of their presence. At other times, still with no lights, the crews sleep as their boats bob on the ocean. Most unsettling is that these open boats, with no equipment on them other than a large motor (invariably a Yamaha,) do not show up on radar.

Several times on a passage along this course, we were startled by the sudden flashing of a small light on the ocean nearby. One of the crew had undoubtedly seen our light and was warning us of the presence of not only the lanchas but of the nets they’re tending. We knew we needed to alter our course sharply to avoid catching a net in the prop or the self-steering rudder, but didn’t know whether to turn to port or to starboard. We had to take a guess, going a hundred yards or more on a 90° angle from our bearing. In one instance on our most recent voyage, the men in the lancha kept heading toward us to push us farther off course, until apparently they were satisfied we were beyond the range of the net.

Our propellor hasn’t tangled with fishing net in the ocean for 10 years now. Yet we’ve retained a vivid image of the heart-wrenching clunk of our heavy Ford Lehman engine dropping into the bilge when three of the four engine mounts broke during such an entanglement. When we know we’re near nets, it’s the fear not of the unknown but of the known that frightens us.

Vagaries of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone
The challenges for which sailors can and do spend the most time preparing passages in the triangle linking Panamá, Ecuador and Galápagos are those connected with the weather. The stray floating objects, the unpredictable movements of other vessels at sea – these are occasional challenges for which the only preparation is alertness. Yet, despite all the weather information now available at the click of a computer key and the weeks of preparation sailors give to weather, these challenges continue to be the ones that most consistently plague voyagers.

During the last three boating seasons, we made a total of five voyages from point to point on this equatorial triangle. Insofar as possible, we carefully timed these passages to coincide with the dates when prevailing weather systems favored the particular passage.

To select the optimum dates, we studied and then monitored the positions of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the wide band of low pressure hovering around the equator but seasonally moving to the north or to the south. Between mid-May and mid-December, the ITCZ typically hovers near to or north of the Panamá Canal at about 9° N. Then the wet season – with light winds, high humidity, but heavy rain and lightning – prevails in the Isthmus of Panamá. Sometime in December, when the ITCZ usually moves south to the equator and into the southern hemisphere, the dry season commences in Panamá.

For our first encounter with weather in this triangle we hit the weather window perfectly – perfectly, that is, if we hadn’t expected to sail. We had arrived in Panamá from Nicaragua too late to take advantage of the Christmas winds, strong northeast winds blowing in the Caribbean typically between mid-December and early March that cross the Isthmus to give voyagers southbound to Ecuador quite a boost. However, we had not left for Ecuador until early April. But because the ITCZ had already moved down near the equator, we were not likely to be heading directly into strong southerlies.

We left Panamá on April 6 and motorsailed in light southerlies from about 8° N to almost 3° N. On the third day, we started off with a marvelous sail with 15-knot winds on the beam, but these winds lasted for barely more than four hours. From there on into Puerto Lucía Yacht Club, at just over 2° S, we had winds from every direction, but always light and primarily from the southern quadrant.

Though we would have preferred to make the passage under sails alone, we weren’t complaining about making a 600-mile passage to weather in six days, particularly when we heard the story of a Swedish couple who arrived in Puerto Lucía at the end of May. They had taken 15 days to complete the same passage on their 46-foot boat, tacking into strong headwinds all the way.

After storing Carricklee on the hard at Puerto Lucía for the summer, we returned in the fall to prepare for a voyage to the Galápagos, spread across the equator approximately 600 miles west of the Ecuador coast.

According to Ecuadorian sailors, the ideal window for voyaging from coastal Ecuador to the Galápagos Islands is between September 15 and October 15, when southerlies give you a beam reach. However, we had to delay our departure until November 4. As a result, we had more westerly winds than southerlies.

On the first night out, in 20-knot westerlies, the seas were so confused and miserably uncomfortable we hove-to for two hours to rest. The third day, a SSW breeze provided us a respite. Then 15- to 20-knot west winds returned on day four and continued from that direction for the next day and night, plaguing us all the way into our first anchorage on Isla Cristóbal. This voyage will not go down in the annals of our voyaging history as a stellar one for either speed or comfort.

When our three-week permit to visit the archipelago expired on December 1, we left for the last and longest leg of the triangle, the nearly 1,000-mile passage to Panamá. While winds in the Galápagos in early December are generally southerly at 15 knots or less, we had to consider what we were likely to encounter as we crossed the 950 miles of open ocean to Panamá. In early December, when the ITCZ is typically in its northward position, we anticipated the prevailing southerly winds would give us a swift and comfortable sail.

With these expectations, we provisioned and prepared the boat for a 10-day passage. Once away from the Islands, we set a course of 58° and pointed our bow toward Golfo de Panamá.

As we sailed away from the Galápagos, we reveled in the southeasterly winds, the generally clear skies, and, illuminated by the bow light at night, the flutterings of the nocturnal-fishing swallowtailed gulls, their wings shadowed against the sails like undulating lengths of silk.

Less than 48 hours out, however, we were becalmed. After a few wearying hours of slatting sails and banging booms, we started the diesel and got underway again.

Early on the third day, we bumped into a few of the rain cells that had begun to appear regularly on the horizon around us. Soon after, we could see nothing on the radar but rain within a six-mile ring ahead and to either side. These were a trade-off for what we had hoped would be good southerlies for the voyage. We had left early enough in the tropical wet season to expect good winds but also to get the heavy rain and lightning of this season. Unfortunately, we got a much larger dose of the latter than of the former.

By 0630 that day, when we had enough light to see, our first views confirmed what radar had been telling us: Heavy rain was everywhere. And it didn’t let up until after 0800. During the day, we motored more than we sailed, going from one area of rain to the next.

The conditions we were in and the weather reports broadcast on the Panamá-Pacific Net indicated a large and unstable ITCZ dominating the weather for several hundred miles ahead. The ITCZ was moving south earlier than we’d anticipated, and we could expect more convection (weather guy talk for rain, thunder and lightning).

Indeed, we continued to have day after day of rain, with almost no wind accompanying the wet weather. To reduce the time spent getting through the heaviest rains, we ran the diesel. Between rains, we often had light winds, but enough to sail for only short periods.

On the fifth day, still encountering long periods of rain, occasionally so heavy we couldn’t see the bow pulpit from the cockpit, a new problem arose: The oil pressure in the diesel suddenly dropped to zero. We shut down immediately and, in checking the engine, discovered the oil cooler had failed, and all the engine oil had leaked out the exhaust. More seriously, when we’d shut down the motor, seawater had flowed into the crankcase through the same rupture from which the oil had escaped.

Now under sails alone, we despaired when our forward progress dropped from approximately 120 miles a day to 18. In searching for a way to get the engine running again, we found that, with the failed oil cooler disconnected, the diesel could safely run at low rpms for one-hour bursts. When the engine temperature increased and the oil pressure began to dip, we shut down and allowed the engine to cool before starting up again.

By the seventh day, still in almost constant heavy convection, we were now getting lightning strikes uncomfortably close. A year or two earlier, we had discontinued our practice of dragging chain from the main shrouds to conduct electrical charges away from the boat when in the vicinity of electrical storms. Now we thought we should shackle lengths of anchor chain to our shrouds immediately. But before we could get out the spare chain, the lightning had moved away.

When our winds increased from a whisper to 10 to 12 knots on day eight, we decided to change our destination. The secure harbor of Golfito, Costa Rica, lay only 125 miles NNE of our position, but Panamá City was still more than 400 miles away.

Influencing our choice of destination was the 90-mile leg of the passage from Punta Mala, one of the most dangerous points of land on the Pacific Coast, to Panamá City, this leg almost certain to be upwind and against a significant current.

Our decision to escape the weather conditions as quickly as possible may have been one of our best on the trip. Light westerly winds continued until we were in Golfito on the ninth day of the passage. By contrast, when we were in almost continuous but essentially windless rains, friends going through the ITCZ 250 miles due east of our position were having quite different weather.

Though the ITCZ often brings rain and light winds, as we were experiencing, it can also be a source of turbulent weather as strong winds rushing in collide with the warm tropical air of the ITCZ. The resulting convection can cause wind gusts that reach gale force in one small area but not in another only 100 miles away.

In our passage from the coast of Ecuador to Panamá in November 2006, we experienced similar conditions at about 5° N, close to the position where Elsewhere was when the two knockdowns occurred. Rain cells began to clutter the radar screen, most of them small. When they reached us, they brought light to medium showers but little or no wind. Near 6° N, however, these cells appeared closer together and more intense. Occasionally, two of the smaller ones would merge into one bringing heavy rain and some wind.

Watching these sea-level clouds on radar and from deck, we skirted around the centers of most. A few miles above 6° N, a dense cell stretched from horizon to horizon, except for one small opening we thought we might slip Carricklee through to avoid the heaviest of the rain. We considered rolling up the headsail, but delayed any further deliberation when, in a brief let-up of the pummeling rains, the hazy configuration of a medium-sized containership appeared no more than 2.5 miles off to starboard.

As we studied the movement of the ship to determine its course, the wind strength increased in moments from light and variable to 40 knots on the port beam. For sails we had  the full main, genoa and mizzen sails set and capturing this powerful gust. Life aboard Carricklee was exciting for a few seconds while we rapidly eased the sheets to bring the starboard rail back above the surface of the water.

During the next half hour, the wind decreased, but the rain and electrical storms continued unabated. We turned off and disconnected all the electronics and waited anxiously as each electric storm approached, the strikes progressively closer. Of each set, the two or three nearest bolts of lightning striking the water around us were far more frightening than the wind had been. But in each case the electrical storm moved on by.

After an exhausting day of averting near disasters, we changed our course from Balboa Yacht Club to the first harbor across the Colombia border with Panamá, Bahía Piñas. In continuing heavy rain and lightning, we dropped anchor in the wonderful protection of the bay near Tropic Star Lodge just before dark.

When we tuned in to the Panamá-Pacific Net the next morning from Bahía Piñas, we learned the ITCZ had moved farther southward than usual for the time of year and was now positioned along the Panamá-Colombia border, precisely where we had had the heavy weather the day before.

No matter for which leg of the triangle between Panamá, coastal Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands voyagers are preparing, they can usually assure themselves of the best passage by considering the calendar along with the weather forecasts. Once underway on any of these four- to ten-day passages, however, voyagers can assume they might have to decide how best to navigate in weather that comes with an ITCZ on the move.

On each side we voyaged in this triangle between Panamá, coastal Ecuador and Islas de los Galápagos, we can say readily the vagaries of the weather – namely, the ITCZ – caused us the most concern. On the other hand, though, it was an unidentified floating object in the water that caused the most equipment damage.

While none of the challenges in this triangle of the Pacific Coast have been so out of the ordinary as to rival the myths surrounding the Devil’s Triangle, each side brought us unique challenges we cannot fully explain. Yet we’d not hesitate to sail through this triangle over and over again, for each voyage also brought us some of the joys of bluewater sailing: the uninterrupted companionship of a best friend, the solitude of the rippling sapphire ocean and the unsullied horizon, the steady performance of a sturdy and reliable boat, the completion of a passage with boat and crew virtually unscathed, and more than a few stories to tell.                 

Bob and Carolyn Mehaffy were college professors in Sacramento, California before they began full-time voyaging more than 10 years ago.

By Ocean Navigator