My expectations upon departure soon evaporated away, reality had indeed unveiled itself in a heart stopping manner, stomping down the isle with heavy uncoordinated strides, hooves for feet, a toothless bride of no escaping, pre arranged it seemed, coming straight out of left field, a salty sea bass to the face, a burnt out stake on the dinner plate. Had I over fed Little Coconut before we left? was 50 days worth of water, four months of food and five days of fuel too much? Was it the windless beginning, with diesels fumes that leaked out from our 1980’s tractor engine, baking our brains as we motored for two days straight? Was it the electrical gauges which all gave up the ghost or the oven we sat in which cooked us to toast, was it Coconut’s slow over loaded tread or the lightening which flashed above our heads, was it the southerly set of a nowhere breeze which blocked the road and upset the seas, whatever the list of reasons our candle had burned out by day four, we were over it, beating into the sway, pointing 50 or sixty degrees off, stumbling, Colombia down one drunken barrel, northwest to oblivion down the other. The start of the ‘ milk run’ as sailors say, had turned out sour, curdled thick in the circling corridors of the doldrums, we sat heaved-to beneath a roaring squall, with lightening filling the air, I wondered what it was all about, this sailing lark, why do we put ourselves through it? How does the sea manage to keep calling us back? The boat was soaked through, the skies dull and grey, patched black with ink stained squalls. We needed the front hatches open when motoring to vent the fumes, my makeshift tarp attempting to offset the tropical rain proved ineffective. Miranda had been getting head aches, upon further inspection smoke was pulsing out of a hose which ran from the oil bay, it looked like some sort of overflow device, the hose dropped down into the bilge, it wasn’t connected up to anything and looked like it never had been. My bookmark is still stuck on page one of the diesel mechanic handbook for dummies, a crazy predicament considering all the time I’ve spent afloat, I found some spare tube, taped the hose leaking smoke to it and fed it out the boat, a quick fix solution, good enough to keep the show on the road.
We soon hit a current heading north, the south westerly had pushed us too far over, when the wind dropped below ten knots we were motoring sailing on the starboard tack at about 1.8 to 2 knots, it was soul destroying. Our engine appeared to be drinking juice at a rate of 2 litres an hour. How is that possible I thought to myself? ( something to do with the fumes no doubt) having predicted 1.4 to 1.5 litres per hour. It soon became apparent getting south of Galapagos would take weeks, we would be out of fuel within two days with 600 miles still to cross before the trades winds set in, 200 litres of diesel had vanished in thin air, slurped up like a slush puppy, all our fresh food would be eaten before the ocean crossing even started, before that 3500 miles unveiled its blue eyes. Plans would have to change, we decided to hit Ecuador, take fuel and fresh food on there and hop down to the trades that way, Coconut was just too heavy to move in the light flukey winds, it was however touch and go if we would even make Ecuador under engine, she sat back across the railway track, like a frozen friend, arms outstretched on the platform pavement, we slowly etched away, bound up in ocean carriages all heading north, lost the wrong side of the wire swimming upstream like a bloated jellyfish.
After two days of beating into black skies we were given a brake, the clouds disappeared and the sun returned, wet covers and cushions were dried out and a degree of order was brought back. With the wind gently resting on our port side we managed to motor sail at a civilised pace, 3.5 to 4 knots, it was a well needed rest bite. By day seven, after hearing my Dad’s latest weather forecast, there was just one option left on the table, the only port we had enough diesel to reach was Esmerelda. The name jumped off the page, it sounded enchanting, Esmerelda, the mermaid on the rocks, she softly sang us in.
The river was running fast when we hit the bank, Miranda shouted up with a panicked hiss, ‘the depth is two.’ Twenty five foot to two in a heart beat, Coconut ran up on that thing like a beached whale. The current quickly grew teeth, it span the boat beam on, our full keel then bedded square into the mud, the weight of flow rose up, pushing over our starboard flank, driving it down, Coconut was healed over so far our seacock for the engine was lifted completely dry, I had to shut her off. Three local fishing boats motored in to help, they buzzed around us like hungry wasps, shouting Spanish limericks that I couldn’t understand. A tug steamed in next, waiting out in the deep water, unwilling to get too close due to the depth. The tug was promptly followed by a boat load of marines, they stood out on the touchline like a crowd of silent rugby spectators. The fisherman were legends, they didn’t holdback, risking their engines to steam us off, motors churned and groaned, warps were thrown and tied, re thrown and retied, the boats bumped into each other and into us, struggling in the strong current. We somehow span Little Coconut around so our nose ran flush with the flow, this released our starboard gunnel from the clutches of moving water, our boat levelled enough for Miranda to turn on the engine, the downward pressure driving us into the mud was reduced when our keel ran straight, we were then free to slide off, which after some heavy revs and in a thick black cloud of smoke, we did. Free at last, what a fiasco, the buoy system was still American, my GPS was out, all the classic mistakes they teach you about in the RYA classroom, the type of rookie errors you chuckle about with a group of aspiring sailors, ‘who would be stupid enough to rely on their GPS in a river,’ ‘who would sail into a new country without checking the buoy system.’ Well guilty as charged, that tit was me. After a full Esmeraldan escort to the anchorage, which included all three fishing boats and the marines, I was escorted off to explain myself to the navy, Miranda, God bless her, was left guarding Coconut in our new Ecuadorian home, a commercial fishing port on the equator. Before leaving I gave the fisherman some bottles of the rum we had brought to trade for pearls in the Tumutos and some yanky dollars for their time, they seemed over the moon and smiled at me with great beaming grins, what a rush, the third grounding I’ve had in Coconut and definitely the most hair raising.
Esmeralda was our home for just 24 hours, a mud coloured grey lined harbour packed to the brim with every type of industrial boat imaginable, flat bottomed fishing boats lined up on broken down pontoons, chattering away in waves of heavy wake, there was tugs and trawlers sitting side by side, there was long liners and navy boats, tankers sleeping out deep and dug out canoes in the shallows, pulled high and dry, basking like pop bellied lizards on walls of black rock, it seemed every man and his dog had some sort of amphibious craft. Strangely Little Coconut fitted in there, despite being seen as an inconvenience by the authorities, her purpose built lines and rust stained flanks where the natural order, the strips of Esmeralda’s uniform. The navy officers where good eggs, I think they liked practising their English and asked questions about the boat, where we’d come from and where we were going, ‘ Dangerous out there on a small boat,’ they said, ‘plenty of bad guys off Colombia.’ Sailing vessels are only allowed to berth under emergency by all accounts, no wind and low fuel was good enough, given out tragic entrance, we were told to wait for an agent, he would stamp out passports and sort out clearance papers. It all happened late that evening, by the morning after ironing out some errors in translation, aka it cost me 300 bucks and they didn’t give receipts, we were ready to hit the road, watching the buoys closely we ran out of there, back into the still windless waters from where we came.
Three nights later we arrived at a port Lucia, a supposedly sailing friendly marina, if the river nearly sunk us at Esmerelda, the prices threaten to do the same at Lucia, 50 bucks at night, daylight robbery. We were learning many lessons in Ecuador, this was one of supply and demand, with electrical repairs needed we sucked it up and payed for four nights, happy to be on dry land, we were within a stepping stone of the trades, a hard leg through the doldrums complete. Other than the marina prices I loved Ecuador, with light pockets we floated around the markets, the dusty corners and grey sand beaches, the taxi drivers smiled and spoke with rusty Spanish tongues, driving fast and skipping red lights like it was part of the road etiquette, honking their horns as regularly as they changed gears. I even managed to squeeze a surf in, paddling out into the grey water, unfit and out of practise, letting loose and getting the blood pumping again, felt good. Two boats rocked up, which by previous cruising standards isn’t allot, one boat called Cannonball, the other a cat called Cha Ching, both we recognised from Panama, it was good to have some company and Louise who came with us through the canal as a line hander was crew on Cannonball. We left them there after a quick week, fuelled up, stocked up, took a deep breath and went back out for round two, hoping this time to brake into the trades and not look back, tap into that flush of hot air and float away.