February 23, 2018
The swell rocks us all night long, and although BERTIE is comfortable and solid, the motion is just a little bit too strong to allow for a good night’s sleep. Plus, I’m nervous about having to spend the day in the water, swimming with the sea snakes, scraping barnacles off the bottom. But it’s been on the To Do List all along, and one of the reasons I’m a part of the crew.
Why do we have to scrape the hull at this point in time? When we arrive in the Galápagos islands, a diver will inspect BERTIE below the waterline, to make sure we aren’t importing any alien life forms to the archipelago. This is just one of the requirements: it’s not easy, or affordable, to take a private sailboat to the Galápagos. When I researched before the trip, I found lots of blog posts where sailors complained about all the hoops they had to jump through. Some went so far as to claim that it’s a conspiracy of regulations geared to make it difficult for the independents, and easy for the cruise ship industry. Maybe that’s true, actually. I add up all the fees that our agent, Javier, tells us about. A vessel entry permit or “autografo” is $400 for a sixty-day visit; Javier’s agency fee is $150 for the boat and two people, plus $25 per additional person; there’s a $10 port captain fee, multiplied by the tonnage of your vessel, so for BERTIE that would be $230 bucks, I guess; a $100 representation fee for each port visited; $15.75 immigration fee each time you arrive or depart a port (double on weekends and local holidays); the vessel hull inspection performed by a diver, at $50 per person aboard; $100 biosecurity inspection; and a one-time $50 fuel permit fee. On top of all that, every tourist who visits the Galápagos, whether by plane or boat, has to pay a $20 migration fee and a $100 National Park entry fee. Then there’s the “Miscellaneous Fees” category where they can tack on extra stuff without warning. On Javier’s list of fees, the one listed as biosecurity agency says in parentheses “sanity inspection.” I know it’s a typo, but can’t help laughing.
Visiting the Galápagos by private boat is restrictive, too. When I found out that we would not be allowed to take BERTIE anywhere in the islands except the four main cities, I seriously considered not going. Part of the joy of sailing, for me, is the ability to anchor the boat and go ashore in the dinghy to explore the land. Known as “gunkholing,” it’s kind of similar to using your parked RV as basecamp while you go on long day hikes into wilder regions. But the Galápagos is not a gunkholing kind of place. Anchoring is prohibited anywhere outside the ports, presumably to reduce damage to the corals and other marine habitats. You’re not even allowed to cruise around the islands, but instead must go directly from port to port. And using your own dinghy to go ashore in the port cities is impossible, or at least discouraged. (No dock space, sea lions will trash your dinghy, etc.) It’s ironic — almost insulting — for cruisers to anchor in “town” and then pay to take a boat ride to visit the other sites and/or islands.
While seriously hampering the freedom-loving style of cruisers, I can see how all these rules are important, both to keep the ecosystem safe, and also to support the local tourism-based economy. I hope the fees are actually used for their intended purpose, and it’s not all just some kind of racket.
And, hoops that protect the integrity of ecosystems: these are the kind I’m willing to jump through. Even though no agency or government requires me to do it, I already clean all the mud and seeds off my boots before I travel to a new region or country. I make sure my tent and camping gear are clean, too. After fifteen years spent in a land stewardship role at conservancies, I’ve done my time on invasive species management: pulling, digging, cutting, herbiciding, burning… and I’ve seen first-hand the ecological devastation non-native plants and animals cause. The very last thing I want to do is introduce a new invasive species to the Galápagos. So, I’ll gladly spend a little time scraping barnacles off BERTIE’s hull.
I’m nervous for another reason. We’ve already checked out of Mexico, and are not supposed to go ashore again. This bottom-scraping is our last task. Then we can take off, sailing “one foot on the beach” past the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and setting out across the open ocean. I’ve only done one ocean-crossing before. Then, in the midst of gales and seasickness, I vowed, “I’m not doing this again.” Now, I wonder, why am I breaking my promise to myself? But surely, an equatorial voyage in a heavy wooden boat will be quite different from a North Atlantic crossing during hurricane season… won’t it?
We are all awake and up early. The plan is that Heidi and I will wear masks and snorkels, and scrape the upper parts of the hull. Peter will dive deeper, cleaning the keel while he breathes compressed air through a hookah rig. He was awake at about 4:00 am, getting his coffee and breakfast finished so he could set everything up. The hookah rig uses a gas-powered generator to run an air compressor. A mouthpiece on the end of the air hose looks like a scuba setup, but does not include a regulator. “Never hold your breath, that’s the key,” says Peter. “If you let the pressure build up, it could rupture a lung. Or if you surface too fast, or go below 33 feet deep (which is one atmosphere of pressure), that would also be BAD. Embolisms and such.” I will not be using the hookah rig.
My costume for the day is a mask and snorkel, a long-sleeve rash shirt, a pair of Heidi’s tights, my bathing suit underneath, mis-matched swim fins borrowed from BERTIE, cotton gardening gloves with rubberized palms (worn on opposite hands so the rubber is on the backs, not on the palms), and, on a cord around my neck, three plastic scrapers of various sizes and a black scrubby square.
We’re all in the water by 8:00 AM. The swell is still strong, and I’m afraid at first that all twenty-three of BERTIE’s tons will come crashing down on my head. But it turns out that if I work with the swell it is actually helpful, as the movement exposes more of BERTIE’s hull, and I can reach deeper down. My left hand acts as a reference point on BERTIE’s side, much like I would steady a big draft horse while grooming it. The light contact between my hand and the hull is just enough to carry me along with BERTIE when she moves. I scrape barnacles with my right. It’s a liquid world, and we’re all sloshing around in it together.
It’s cool to see BERTIE from below; a totally different perspective. She is a big-bottomed gal. Like an iceberg, it looks as if most of BERTIE’s surface area is below the waterline. There’s a lot of work to do. We need to make sure every little speck of marine life is scraped away. Fortunately, BERTIE was hauled out not too long ago, so doesn’t have much growth on her wooden hull.
It ends up being fun. The plastic scraper slides along the hull, with a satisfying crunchy release when the barnacles give way and break loose. They drift gently downward, sinking out of view to the bottom, sixty feet below. Peter’s exhaled bubbles rise up around me. I’m absorbed in the work, and am just about ready to take off my snorkel so I can free-dive deeper down, but Peter is climbing aboard and calls for a break. I’m surprised to find out we’ve been in the water for ninety minutes.
As Peter removes the hookah rig mouthpiece, he says, “I’m tired. For the first time, I’m feeling my age.”
“I don’t know many seventy-somethings who could keep up with you, Peter. There probably aren’t even very many 20-somethings who could.”
“It’s not easy hanging on down there. I had my legs wrapped around the keel, riding the surge.”
We all catch our breath and enjoy the sun for a minute, tuning out. I’m surprised a few minutes later to see Peter back in the water, already halfway over to SAPPHIRE.
“Where’s he going?” I ask Heidi. He’s been so focused on getting BERTIE underway, I wouldn’t think he’d choose this moment to go for a recreational swim. “He didn’t say anything.”
“I guess he’s going for a visit.”
“Well, I wanna go, too!”
We both get back into the water and head over to SAPPHIRE. Elina and Greg are very welcoming, give us towels and show us around. We tour their spotless, shiny, super non-BERTIE yacht – no grease! No end-of-the-world supply of provisions! No visible tools or cans of paint or workbenches or stacks of lumber! No vintage World War II parts! The contrast is remarkable. While I enjoy a visit on SAPPHIRE, BERTIE’s got my heart.
Heidi and I are below, checking out the Sapphires’ bookshelves, when Peter jumps off the boat and swims back to BERTIE. He’s acting a little weird.
We wrap up our visit and head back to our boat. As I swim to BERTIE’s side, I shout up, “Hey, Peter, could you pass me my scrapers and snorkel?” I’m eager to get back to work on the barnacles.
“Nope. Come aboard. We’re going to Huatulco. I’ll explain everything.”
I’m shocked. Why in the world would we go to Huatulco? I have to swim around to the other side of the boat to the ladder. I’m still in the water when Peter says, “I recently found a lump under my breast and Elina felt it. She told me I should get it checked out. I’m sorry if it fucks up the trip.”