Enchanted isles

For three and a half centuries they were known to navigators as the Enchanted Islands. They could not always be found, or sometimes they appeared when not expected. Since time was money, trading vessels almost never attempted to call there. Pirates and corsairs, whose money and privacy were worth more than their time, made some of the islands’ harbors their special havens. When whaling vessels started sailing the Pacific, they also took the time to locate the Enchanted Islands.

The reasons for the mystery of finding the Galapagos Islands are rooted in the sky and the sea. The cold, north-flowing Humbolt or Peruvian current usually flows into the channels between the islands, but in the Northern Hemispheres’ winter months, warm waters from the Gulf of Panama, flowing southwestward, displace the cold antipodean stream. Coupled with these phenomena are local upwellings off the big island of Isabela that add to the confusion throughout the year. From May to November winds are normally steady and reliable around the islands, but the sky is almost always overcast. Therefore, the sailor had to depend on his dead reckoning, made unreliable by the constantly changing currents. Perversely, the months of December to April have lots of clear skies between tropical squalls, but the winds are generally calm. So, the navigator could get in plenty of sights of sun and stars, but no breeze filled his sails.

Steam propulsion, common on the west coast of South America in the last half of the 19th century, made finding the islands a less daunting task. However, errors were still easy to make when currents changed from one direction to another for no apparent reason. Only the coming of electronic navigation aids made accurate landfalls a routine event.

A year and a half before sailing from Seattle, we applied for a cruising permit with the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington, D.C. While moored in San Francisco, Lyn and our daughter, Jenny, went in person to the Ecuadorian Consulate, and it seemed unlikely we would ever receive a visa, as the officials were negative about our prospects. We decided to write one more letter requesting a permit, though we had little hope of success. Luckily, we were delayed one month in San Diego. The day before sailing south, we were surprised by receiving a permit from Quito for a two-week stay in August.

Our approach to the Galapagos was from Costa Rica where our friend, Barbara King, joined us aboard our ketch Murielle. Our passage was through the doldrums (Intertropical Convergence Zone) and almost directly to windward, making necessary a long southerly starboard tack almost to Punta Galera on the Ecuadorian mainland.

Sixty miles off Punta Galera the wind suddenly backed around to the south, and we were able to lay over on port tack, free the sheets, and sail directly for Isla Genovesa at the northwest corner of the Galapagos. At night the trade wind would pipe up and carry us rushing along over the gently heaving seas, sometimes up to hull speed; during the day it would lighten and we would slow a bit, but the direction of the wind hardly varied. The cooler waters produced a cloud cover to hide the sun and stars.

The loom of the running lights illuminated seabirds swooping across the bow as we carried along. We knew we were close to the Galapagos when we saw red feet on the birds around usred-footed boobies, which, of the three varieties that nest on the islands, fish the farthest out to sea.

Where was the island?

Photos of Isla Genovesa showed high cliffs that should produce a strong radar target, so I expected that we would find a blip on the radar screen some twenty miles off. And the English name, Tower Island, made me think it could be detected at maximum radar range. At about 1000, when DR indicated we should have 17 miles to go, there was still no indication on the radar screen. Up to the last three days I had always confirmed the DR with sextant observations, but the cloud cover made this check impossible. So our landfall appeared to be uncertain. Just then a patch of hazy blue appeared in the sky and the sun’s disk weakly beamed through. I quickly took a sight and worked out a morning sun line. It crossed our DR track on the plotting sheet just about where it should have, so I figured we were where we ought to be. But where was Isla Genovesa? I thought the enchantment had been taken out of finding these islands!

Finally, a faint, shadowy blip showed on the screen just to the north of our course lineour island. An hour or so later a faint gray smudge appeared on the horizon. As we neared the shore the mystery of the weak radar reflection was solved. The steep cliffs in the photos were all taken inside Bahia Darwin, hidden from the radar’s sweep. The outer slope, densely covered with silver-colored, spindly Palo Santo trees, ran gently to the edge of the sea. Definitely a poor radar target! Later we found out that Tower was the name of an English lord, not the shape of the island.

Our destination was Isla Baltra, the site of a U.S. Army Air Force Base during World War II. Even before Pearl Harbor the U.S. realized that the Pacific Ocean approaches to the Panama Canal were defenseless. Therefore negotiations began with the Ecuadorian government to lease the Galapagos Islands for long-range patrol bomber and fighter fields. In December 1941 construction began on a base that would eventually house 1,700 men and fly countless sorties over a 1,000-mile radius of the Pacific. In July of 1946 the base was turned over to the Ecuadorian Navy and Air Force. The air strip is used now by commercial jets bringing tourists and residents back and forth from the mainland.

The pier and tank farm are still in use, with water and fuel brought by Ecuadorian Navy vessels from the mainland. We hoped to be able to top off there.

An exhilarating beat brought us into Aeolian Cove, the protected harbor on the west shore of Baltra. There we could see the remains of the seaplane ramps used in WW II by the Catalinas and other U.S. Navy flying boats that ferried supplies and personnel from U.S. bases in the Panama Canal Zone. That evening the port captain, a truly charming and handsome Ecuadorian Navy officer, came aboard to handle the entry paperwork and arrange for taking on diesel and water.

The next morning a stiff southwest breeze was blowing right on the face of the concrete pier, and we worried about damaging Murielle if we came alongside. Our fears were groundless, as the hull never came close to touching the pier’s knobby surface. We found that the bottom was good holding sand, so we could anchor and then pay out chain until the stern was close enough to the dock to reach for the fuel hose.

While fueling, we were treated to an exciting diving exhibition by great flocks of pelicans and boobies. Flying 100 feet or more above us, the birds would suddenly tuck in their wings and rocket straight down into the water, leaving plumes of spray. The pelican, so lugubrious when waddling around on the beach, is truly an impressive dive bomber. The booby, whose English name is humorous, is more respectfully called piquero, or pikeman, in Spanish because its sharp symmetrical bill resembles the medieval weapon.

Canal de Itabaca, a winding, narrow channel between Baltra and Isla Santa Cruz, appeared too dangerous to try without a local pilot. Therefore, we backtracked northward a few miles to thread the pass between Baltra and little Seymour Island before heading down the east coast of Isla Santa Cruz for Puerto Ayora. Later, with our guide and pilot, Mario Bazan, aboard, we transited this rock-strewn shortcut safely by following day-markers and the path of deeper light-colored sand between the dark, rocky shoal patches.

Past a wrecked freighter

The sailing directions recommend approaching Puerto Ayora from three miles off. We elected to follow local advice, stay about a mile off the southeast shore, and then thread our way between Isla Camaao and the wreck of the old freighter named Iguana into the harbor. Sets of heavy swells marched up from the south and pounded the black rocks lining the shore of Isla Santa Cruz. The backsides of these combers were impressive enough. However, nearing Isla Camaao, we could see the faces of waves curling and crashing into giant sliding breakers just like the credit scenes in the old Hawaii Five-0 television series.

Just off the port bow we spotted two pairs of big, black dorsal fins cutting the water. "Sharks!" we thought. Then the dorsal fins turned into the wing tips of two immense manta rays as they jumped high up in unison, flipped, and hit the water with a resounding crash.

Ahead of us was the anchored fleet of tour boats, a varied collection of sailing craft, modern cabin cruisers, and locally built wooden lanchas. As we slowly approached, crewmembers on the tour boats guided us into a space where we could anchor bow and stern, with our bow into the remains of the swells. A daunting sight on the black rocks of the harbor edge, close to leeward, was a stranded 50-foot sailboat with breakers licking over its keel and broken rudder. It made me think: Are our anchors really set? Are we safe here?

We learned later that the skipper only put down one anchor as he was sailing in the morning. He forgot to mouse the anchor shackle, and the pin worked loose in the night, letting the boat drift onto the rocks. The cook and six passengers were aboard. Luckily, all got off and to high ground with only one skinned kneea miracle, considering they had to abandon ship in the pitch dark over the jagged, glass-like lava rocks without even a flashlight.

A glance around the harbor revealed that the Murielle was the only foreign vessel in the harbor. Every other craft displayed the Ecuadorian ensign with its bright bands of blue, red, and gold.

We expected to be thrilled by the storied wildlife of the islands, but the picturesque nature of Puerto Ayora was a complete surprise. We couldn’t see the secret Laguna de Las Ninfas behind the small inner harbor. You can only get to it by small boat, ducking under the mangrove branches and entering a narrow canal that suddenly opens onto a beautiful pond with a variety of birds. At that moment, we had no idea that Puerto Ayora would become very familiar. We were to stay right here for more than two months, leaving only twice for passages among the islands.

After Barbara had flown home to San Diego, and just before we were due to sail away, a panga came alongside carrying the operators of Quasar Nauticos tour boats along with the head of the Park Department. We both thought we had done something wrong: maybe stepped on an iguana egg or broke a branch on a rare tree. No such thingour friends just wanted to formally introduce us to the director since he wanted to ask Lyn to stay and teach the park staff English for the next two months, the off season for tourists. In exchange, permission would be obtained from the Navy to allow Murielle to stay and perhaps even make some patrols around the islands on behalf of the Park Department. The invitation was accepted on the spot, and thus began our extended stay, never dreamed of before that moment.

We never made any patrols for the Park Department, because the port captain, at odds for personal reasons with the director, somehow blocked the necessary permission from Guayaquil. All was not lost, though, as the head of the islands’ electrical system, Luis Aquirre, wanted us to take him to inspect the plants at Black Beach (Playa Prieta) on Floreana and at Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela. The most exciting thing about this trip was that it would be to the two main islands that we did not visit on our own 10-day tour. No problem about permission to navigate as Luis was a close friend of the port Captain.

Place-name confusion

A continuing mystery of the Galapagos is the confusion of names of islands and places. Every island has at least one Spanish name and an English name, as in the case of Floreana (Charles) Island. Floreana is also called Santa Maria, but was renamed Floreana, not because it has an abundance of flowers but to honor President Flores, who was in office when Ecuador took possession of the islands after independence from Spain in 1820.

The English names were given by a pirate, Ambrose Cowley, in the late 17th century. He, like Drake, was a loyal English subject, as his names honor men of war and royalty in Great Britain. He didn’t forget his piratical lifestylehe named the largest island, Albemarle (Isla Isabela), after the Duke of Albemarle, who was a friend in court to the famous freebooters of the time. The control of the islands by Ecuador has made the most recent Spanish names predominant in most cases; books and maps in English perpetuate the confusion by referring to places by their English names, and Spanish books and charts use multiple Spanish names. An exception is Isla Santa Cruz: the English name Indefatigable Island is almost totally forgotten, for good reason Who can pronounce Indefatigable, let alone spell it?

Lyn’s students from the Park Department invited us on a jeep trip up into the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. An exciting prospect as we would be able to reach areas of the heights or parte alta, ordinarily inaccessible to tourists. The line between the dry lower slopes and the green zone is as sharp as if it were made by a man-made irrigation system.

Cactus and thorny scrub immediately give way to grass, shrubs, and green trees. The orchards of tropical fruits are not laid out in rows. Trees are planted in an haphazard fashion to take advantage of the small areas between rocks where the soil is rich and deep. Above the farm areas rises Media Luna, the remains of an ancient volcano, where we hiked through the bright, red-and-green, heather-like plants. When seen at sunset from Murielle in the anchorage, these slopes appeared almost to be on fire.

Cattle and pigs graze in common with the giant Galapagos turtles. It is easy to spot where the turtles have been, not only by the trail made by their ponderous belly plates as they crawl along, but also by the trail of brilliant green, coarsely chopped, tube-shaped manure deposits.

Before leaving the parte alta we picked a big bag of juicy, yellow maracuy (passion fruit) for eating fresh and making marmalade.

We had been warned by others about the problem of choosing a guide for our 10-day cruise around the islands. Any stranger aboard can be a problem. Personality quirks, eating peculiarities, and annoying habits can make 10 days seem like a lifetime. In addition, many guides considered themselves to be naturalists of a superior type and knowledgeable about every aspect of the islands, including piloting safely. The fact was that, while underway on the island tour boats, the guides educated and entertained the passengers and only learned enough piloting from the skippers to be dangerous.

A wonderful guide

The guide we finally found, Mario Bazan, had been a commercial fisherman in the Galapagos for nine years, all the while teaching himself about the natural history and Park regulations so he could pass the guide’s examination. He knew every rock and shoal in the archipelago. He caught dorado, sierra, and blow-fish and dived for lobster, then he cleaned and gourmet-cooked the catch. We were fortunate to have found him; he was a real jewel. He was so considerate that he brought along his own jerry jug of fresh water for washing and bathing. Every day he patiently infused us with his knowledge and love of his islands and country.

The tour boats with bunks for passengers usually transited between islands at night, then anchored during the day so passengers could visit the sights ashore. Some private boats used this method to do as many places as they could in their 10 days. We took a more relaxed approach, making no overnight trips at all. Usually we would stay two nights in each place, giving us plenty of time to enjoy, explore, and learn.

We planned the trip, filed with the Park Department, to have the longest leg off the wind, between Islas Santa Fe and Bartolome; then short windward legs to Rabida, Baha Tortuga on Santa Cruz, Canal de Itabaca, and finally Isla Plaza before returning to Puerto Ayora. Departing Santa Fe we had mostly fair skies and a moderate breeze to push us along under full sail, including our full-shouldered blue, orange, and gold cruising spinnaker. Running at speed made landing fish difficult, but Mario had no problem bringing in a dinner-sized dorado.

We anchored under the loom of Bartolome’s obelisk rock, which is featured on postcards and in photo illustrations in books and magazines. During WW II, fliers from the base at Baltra used this natural tower as a target during bombing and strafing practice. Luckily, their practice rounds had little explosive content and the bombardments were stopped long before the base was closed, or we would not be enjoying the pinnacles striking form today.

A glance at the chart of Isla Isabela shows any number of potentially useful harbors, sheltered from winds and seas. Why then is Puerto Villamil, a slight nook on the windward south shore, the only port? Like the crooked crap game that exists because it’s the only game in town, Puerto Villamil exists because it is the only possible place to land where there is fresh water and a passable route to the moist parte alta where cattle and crops can be raised. Maybe, during the Southern Hemisphere summer months, when the large high pressure area off the continent absorbs the heavy swells produced by the Screaming Fifties, it is a comfortable port. But for us, in September, it was something else!

With Luis Aquirre aboard we approached, as plotted, from well to the south, to head straight north up the center of the bay, in deep water, until the lighthouse bore 078 degrees mag, 176 degrees true; then we turned right along the bearing until the base islet could be left to starboard before hooking around to anchor in sheltered water. It sounded straightforward enough in the planning. As we came into the Bay, Luis started yelling for help. He had hooked a great big sierra fish and was struggling mightily to handle it. We slowed down to help him bring it aboard.

Suddenly, I saw off our starboard beam huge breakers crashing on the shoal area parallel to our course. They were not just white caps but giant combers roaring and crashing on the reefs. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that bone yard. I shouted, "Haggle si mismo (Do it yourself)!" as Lyn steered and I took frequent bearings.

As we turned right we could see that our way ahead to the lighthouse was a path of lumpy, but safe, green water. To the left, though, were the backsides of the breakers hitting the beach; to the right were the whitewater remains of the behemoths pounding the bone yard. Would we make it through? We did. We sighed with relief as the anchor took hold on the sandy bottom in the quiet waters inside the lighthouse islands. Luis was so excited about the big sierra he had caught that he wasn’t even aware of our perilous passage!

There were two landings at Puerto Villamil: a stone pier and landing steps to the northwest of us at the end of the surf-wracked beach in front of town. Freight barges and tour boats landed cargo and passengers there. In the lagoon to the northeast of us was a short pier used by the local commercial fishermen, some of whom were anchored near us. We could see the swells sweeping over the landing steps at the passenger pier and decided to cross the lagoon to the fishermen’s landing. We walked into town to see the port captain, arrange for a tour to the volcano of Sierra Negra the next day and leave Luis and his fish for a night ashore.

Visiting a volcano

Today there is a road all the way to the rim of Sierra Negra’s huge caldera. For us the road ended at the little settlement of Santo Tomas where, almost hidden in the mist, were horses saddled and ready, led by a couple of island wranglers.

As we rode on, we climbed out of the mist, giving us wide vistas of the slopes down to narrow Perry Isthmus, onto faraway volcanic peaks and out across the sea. Finally we reached the toplaid out before us was the wide depression of Sierra Negra’s caldera. Distances and scale were unfathomable. The caldera was six miles wide, the largest in the world. Only explorers had crossed the flat, fissured, scrub-covered floor, so no tracks or other manmade things were in view to compare against its grandeur. Seemingly on cue, the mists on the outer slopes rose to the rim across from us; then silently spilled down over the edge in a broad, diaphanous cascade, flowed out across the caldera floor, and finally evaporated with only fingers of fog as evidence of nature’s amazing display. Niagara Falls could not have been more impressive.

Back aboard, we talked to our fishermen neighbors who explained that we must follow the shoreline around the head of the lagoon to reach the landing, and that we must attempt to cross the middle as we had done and run the risk of being overturned in the breaking waves that randomly occurred. There appeared to be no shoal spot to cause the danger. The only explanation seemed to be that residual energy of ocean swells entering the lagoon could be reflected off the rocky, mangrove-lined shore to encounter a later incoming wave. When the two forces met, exactly parallel, at a perfect harmonic moment, a line of breakers would occur.

We followed the shoreline around to the fishermen’s landing where stacks of stiff, salted, and dried codfish (bacalao) were being sorted and weighed. The scale was an ancient balance hanging from a mangrove branch; no hidden springs or controls for cheating on the weight here. The fish were caught in deep waters on the west side of Isabela, then cleaned, salted, and dried on the black volcanic rocks along the windy shorean efficient, natural dryerbefore being brought to Puerto Villamil for eventual shipment overseas, usually to Brazil.

We felt very fortunate to have experienced this spectacular island and would have liked to stayed much longer, but Luis could not spare the time.

Back in Puerto Ayora we decided to take a day trip on the tour boat Isabela II to Post Office Bay on Floreana. We had missed this famous place on our trip with Luis. It was a treat to enjoy a short sea voyage with no responsibility except to keep from spilling coffee.

Delivering the mail

Once ashore, the guide led us up a path away from the beach to a clearing where the post office was located. Our arrival was anti-climatic, as we had expected to see a large barrel, made of wood, maybe two centuries old. The actual post office was a small wooden box, surrounded by signs and placards of all sizes and types left by visiting vessels. Though the mail barrel was gone, the tradition remained: The guide took the letters out of the box and read the names and cities on the envelopes. Anyone traveling to or near a letter’s destination could agree to carry it personally to the addressee. Were we surprised when the name Worthington in Seattle was read. The letter was addressed to Lyn’s first cousin. Unbeknownst to us, his in-laws, who live on the East Coast, had been in the Galápagos a month before and had left the letter. We were able to hand-deliver it some nine months later, probably about the same transit time as in the days of the old whaling ships.

Nothing about the wildlife in the Galapagos is anti-climatic — in contrast to Alaska, where we had to go to the garbage dump in Ketchikan to be able to see bears and eagles. Here, walking among the nesting birds and sleeping sea lions on a quiet morning brings a penetrating sense of peace unfelt any place else in the world.

Sea lions on the West Coast of the U.S. have become a real nuisance to the mariner, taking over marina and fuel floats as well as chomping down immense quantities of scarce salmon. In the Galápagos humans are the intruders in the sea lions’ special places. At Isla Plaza, giant bulls defend their territories with loud roars and aggressive postures. At other islands we were able to swim and cavort with young males and females in the sandy shallows.

Marine iguanas, so well-known in photos of the Galapagos, were a pleasure to know up close. Lyn had one special friend, a giant over three feet long, that was always on the landing when she went to teach, waiting for her to scratch its neck. Every midday, a lone iguana would swim by Murielle in the direction of the port captain’s office: maybe for lunch. An hour or so later we would see him swimming back our way. As we picked up the anchors to sail for San Cristobal and the mainland, he swam by, for the last time, as if to say farewell.

Originally based in Seattle, Knick and Lyn Pyles are voyaging in South America aboard their boat Murielle.

By Ocean Navigator