Friday, 3 July 2015

Passage: French Polynesia to Panama, week 7 and 8 (23/05/15 - 04/06/15)

Day 42

This was not supposed to take more than six weeks. But here we are.

We almost ran into a scary fishing boat last night. Well, we probably weren't actually going to run into it. Garth was on watch and he was looking around every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes like we have been for the last six weeks. He wasn't even due to look around again when he heard the sound of their engines right by our starboard side. It was a fishing boat with flashing lights everywhere, which we're pretty sure were on top of the nets they were trawling. We couldn't see how far away they were because the moon is only a whisp of a thing at the moment and it disappears quite early in the night anyway. So we were just staring into the darkness at a mess of lights, none of which made any sense. We couldn't tell which way they were going or what was going on, but the fact that we could hear their engines loud and clear roaring through the silence of the night wasn't good. We did an about face and turned hard to port, heading west for a while to get some distance from them. Scary flashing lights and invisible nets under the water are never a good thing. They had two masthead lights on and a confusing red light that seemed unlikely to be on their port side. After ages of trying to distance ourselves, we realised that the red light wasn't a navigational light at all. It was a red triangle. In amongst the mess of flashing lights on the nets I discovered what looked like a matching one. Which kind of made sense because the day signal for fishing is two black triangles, so my be they thought illuminating one was kind of the same. But a random red light at night is just confusing. I was glad for the flashing lights, even though they weren't what was supposed to be there. At least it was obvious that we wanted to stay the hell away from them.

The ship wasn't showing up on our AIS, which was annoying. Most bigger fishing boats have to have AIS, which means they show up on our chart plotter and we can see exactly where they're going and what speed they're going at. They didn't answer the VHF either. Probably because they didn't speak English. Frustrating. Either way we managed to escape unharmed, but it was a bit of a shock to find a boat right next to us when there had been nothing there before. The only logical explananation Garth could come up with was that they had overtaken us from behind and that he hadn't been looking behind us as well as he had in front. It was a legitimately frightening experience, mainly because while we were trying to get some distance from them the sails backed as we went too far upwind, which pushed us back towards the boat. There was no room to go round in a circle in order to fill the sails again and we couldn't tack until I ran up on deck to unclip the preventer. So I was fumbling with ropes in the dark while the boat got pushed closer and closer to the flashing lights and the roaring engines. Not fun. So we're now looking around every 15 minutes at night, which is a lot more exhausting and frustrating. It makes napping in between a lot more difficult and leaves both of us tired at the end of the night.

The scary birds are back again today. They're a lot less scary when the sun is out, but there were about nine of them circling us today and making freaky clicking noises all together. It was like being stalked by a flock of ravens. They were all very excited about the lure we had out, swooping at it and gathering together to stare. If it's interesting to the birds surely the fish should be trying to eat it by now. We're wondering if this area has just been fished out a bit more than further out to sea, seeing as we're now 150 miles off the coast of Columbia. Either that or the fish don't want us to eat them very much.

We had an ocean swell yesterday. It sounds kind of ridiculous to even mention that, but it was exciting. Usually when you're offshore there's always an ocean swell. Sometimes the gap in between waves is short and the boat bounces up and down. If you're lucky, you get a long rollling swell that's so big you hardly notice it passing by. You just rock gently back and forth with the motion of the water. But for this whole passage we've just had waves. Chaotic, breaking waves from all different directions. Even when the swell is unpleasant it still rolls across the ocean in the same direction, one wave after another. You get used to the way the boat moves with it. But this stretch of ocean has just been mental and horrible. The waves have been all churned up, breaking all over the place including onto the boat and into one another. But yesterday we finally had the ocean swell back with gentle rolling waves pushing us along. It's so lovely being downwind. I can see why people usually sail in the other direction.

Garth made chocolate self-saucing pudding today, which made me very happy. A baking day is always a good day. I'll probably make some bread tomorrow, or some other kind of baked goods while the boat is still flat and life is relatively easy. I'm so sick of tinned food its ridiculous. The boat is finally calm enough for us to be able to grow sprouts as well, which have been a welcome change in our diet. Before it was a challenge just to get to the sink and fill up a water bottle without being flung across the boat or having the bottle ripped out of our hands. So rinsing cups of sprouts twice a day and then attaching them to the container they drain into was completely out of the question. But today I got to have tuna crackers topped with sprouts for lunch and i've never before been so happy to eat something green.

Day 45

We haven't had many opportunities to take pictures on this passage. There hasn't really been anything particularly piturescque anyway, what with all the bad weather. But here is a picture of our gear lever.

You might have noticed that it's no longer attached to the boat. Awkward.

The wind completely died last night, so in an attempt to make it Panama before the weekend we decided to motor for a little while. We haven't turned the engine on in nearly seven weeks, which is a really long time. It's by far the longest period of time we've spent living aboard without using the engine. So we made sure there were no loose ropes in the water, checked the batteries were on the right setting and went to move the gear lever out of reverse and into neutral. Except it snapped clean off in Garth's hand.

The wall mount it's supposed to be attached to

We've had problems with it before and it was getting quite old, so it wasn't surprising. But now we have no throttle. The connections inside had frozen up from disuse, so Garth managed to fiddle around with them enough so that I could move the lever with a spanner. We eventually had to start the engine with it not quite in neutral and then the gears relaxed a little and we were able to use the spanner to manever it through the gears a little easier. I'm not sure how we're going to anchor with no throttle... hopefully Garth has a plan. I suppose if something had to break I'd much rather it be that than the sails or something we're constantly using. It's not a disaster. We're heading to the most stocked up and easily accessible place we've been to since Australia so it shouldn't be difficult to fix. It won't be cheap, but it shouldn't be too difficult. Garth is incredibly relieved it chose to break now. We're incredibly paranoid about something going wrong during our trip through the canal, so I can't even express how lucky we are that this happened now and not during our transit. Having to pay to sort out a breakdown midway through the canal would probably bankrupt us.

We're so close to Panama now. Of course, the winds have decided to make our lives harder by becoming light and variable. We managed to sail for most of today, with the kite up this morning and on a beam reach this afteroon as the wind swung around. But we obviously didn't make good time. In order to check in before the weekend we have to be sitting down with the officials well before 3pm on Friday, which is when they close up shop. The place we're checking into isn't always manned either so it might take a while to get somebody out to us. We think it's only $40USD to check in out of hours, which isn't a big deal. But it's never that easy and I'm fully expecting a lot of hidden expenses if we rock up on the weekend. So we're aiming for friday morning at the latest.

In order for this to happen, we have three days to cover 175 miles. Which normally wouldn't be a problem, but with no wind it's a big problem. As keen as I am to get there I'm not sure it's worth wasting a heap of fuel to arrive three days earlier. We've been out here so long it's not really going to make too much differene. So we're just going to motor tonight in the hopes that the wind picks up again tomorrow. If we can get in one day of sailing at 3 knots then we'll just have one day of motoring and we'll be there. But if there's no wind at all, I'm not sure we want to motor for two whole days. We've already had the engine on for two nights and I'd rather not use all the fuel... it feels like throwing money away when if we had a little patience we could just sail for free.

The moon is finally back and bright enough to see by. It's a bit strange on this side of the world though. The crescent moon I'm used to seeing is missing the top right side, whereas the moon over here is halved in the middle. When the new moon came out it looked like a whispy little smile in the night, as if a cheshire cat were hiding behind it. Now it's half full and it's the top left half that's missing. It looks unusual.

The water on this side of the ocean is different as well. All the way across the South Pacific from Australia to French Polynesia, the water has been crystal clear. It's always painted a bright blue colour (reflected from the pretty blue skies) and it looks refreshing and inviting. When it's sunny out at sea the water always has an intricate pattern of light rays shooting through it as the sun tries to penetrate into the depths. The water over here is dark blue. There's no light rays, no pretty turquoise colour and it's definitely not as clear as it has been. I noticed it not long after we left the Gambier, but put it down to the bad weather and turbulent seas. It hasn't changed though. You can see through the water but definitely not as clearly as before. We're starting to come across small bits of wood as well, which get washed out of the rivers in South America when it rains. So we can't be too far off, but the water definitely isn't as nice as before.

Giant logs started floating past as we got closer to the coast

Over the last week the constant supply of suicidal flying fish has been replaced by a constant supply of suicidal squid. I have no idea what that means. I haven't seen a flying fish for ages though and every day we're picking squid up off the deck. Most of them are quite small but some are the same size you would buy from a fish monger. It's a mystery how they're getting up here... I guess they jump up. But we haven't had any splashy waves in ages, so the water level is a long way away from the deck. Maybe they're just curious about what there is for them up to do up above the water. The answer is to die slowly under the scorching sun.

Day 47

It's been raining a lot lately. Not the squally rain that buckets down and is gone just as quickly as it appeared. This is the dreary, miserable kind of rain with big fat rain drops that just keeps coming down with no end in sight. Mostly it's just drizzle, but the skies have been sad and grey. It makes me want to curl up in front of a fire with a good book and a hot chocolate. But that's not going to happen because Garth has half a bottle of milk on his cornflakes every day and there's none left for hot chocolate.

I popped my head up to look around today when I was on watch and I was met with this sight.

Not overly inviting. We changed course to try and skirt around the edge of it, and as a result we didn't get hit too hard. We've taken to just sitting in the rain whenever we can in order to take a shower, but this cloud of death seemed determined to ruin our fun. The raindrops came down hard, stinging as if they were hail.

There's also been a lot of lightning. Every night we spend all our energy trying to go around the thunder storms instead of through them. Tonight and yesterday we were surrounded by death lightning. Garth is opposed to me calling it that, but there was scary fork lightning everywhere just slamming into the water. I'm sure it would have preferred to hit something closer to the clouds, like our mast... Almost every story we've heard about boats getting struck by lightning has been set in Panama. Which is scary considering we could be spending a bit of time there. But I can see how it happens so frequently with all this lightening around.

The water has become quite interesting. If I want something to break up the day I just stare at the water for a while and something is bound to pass by. Mostly logs and branches. Today a bird perched on a chunk of wood floated past. Which doesn't sound that unusual, but remember we haven't even seen many birds doing regular things in almost two months. Garth was on watch this morning when a turtle cruised past. He was so excited he came and woke me up to tell me about it. He said it was a different breed to the ones we're used to seeing, with a grey back and a chilled out demeanor. He wasn't going very fast and Garth is adamant that he popped his head up alongside and waved a flipper at us. I don't think we've ever seen a turtle in the middle of the ocean before. They always hang out around the coast where there's reefs and sea grass.

Our headsail has managed to get a rip in it. Probably from flapping around so much while we've been drifting round in circles. We've got leather wrapped around the edges of the stays to stop the sail from getting damaged, but that mustn't have been enough. I want to take it down to fix it, but it's so big and such a mission to deal with. Plus we're nearly there and it would take a whole day to repair, so we're leaving it for now.

We've had a lot of current against us over the last two days and not much wind. We've got two lines coming out of our boat on the chartplotter - one for the direction we're facing and one for the direction we're going. At one point they were facing in exact opposite directions as we were moving forwards at the same speed we were being dragged backwards (if there's just no wind, the boat would turn around with the current instead of still facing forwards). So that's been a pain in the ass. We definitely won't arrive before the weekend now. We tried motoring for a while, but we eventually ran out of fuel and gave up. Luckily I turned the engine off before the tank completely emptied which meant we didn't have to bleed it. But we don't have enough fuel in the jerry cans to motor the rest of the way. Maybe if we could go at a slower, more efficient speed, but we're still motoring at 2500rpms in order to look after the new engine. So we're just bobbing along, occasionally forwards and often backwards. But we're still making progress, with 174 miles to go.

Not getting anywhere...

Day 48

Today started off with a pretty traumatic morning, both for us and the bird that decided to get caught on our fishing line.

When I woke up this morning I was met with horrible weather again. The ocean seemed to have regressed back to the horrifying state it was in a week or two ago, with steep, chaotic waves. We were being flung around all over the place, hitting the water hard as we went flying over the churned up mess. It's hard to explain just how horrible the boat is in this weather. Today felt like we were playing bumper cars with the waves on a road covered in speed bumps, getting slammed from all sides at the same time we were being flung into the air. On days like this I lie in bed with the sheet over my head counting down the minutes and the miles. Because there's no other way to deal with it. You just have to keep telling yourself that it will be over soon.

Whoever is on watch checks the fishing line every time they look around, which is every 15 minutes in bad weather. But we decided that there was no way we were going to be able to deal with a fish today, so Garth went up to bring the line in. And he found a bird on the other end. Every time a bird looks down at our lure I worry that he'll try and eat it. But they always seem to be able to tell the difference between a real fish and our fake one with a hook on the end, and after they swoop down to grab it they always fly off before actually getting too close. This guy wasn't so lucky though. He was being dragged behind the boat by his mouth and we were absolutely horrified to find him there.

Garth managed to pull him on board and then held him by the neck as he got the hook out. It wasn't actually in his mouth but had hooked onto his throat pouch. Garth thinks that he was probably just inspecting the lure when he got too close because of the nasty waves. He didn't struggle once Garth was holding him, thank goodness. Once the hook was free he tried to fly off, but then to our horror he got caught in the line again. So once again we had to pull him up, this time before he was dragged too far. The hook got in his wing and the line wrapped around his foot and tail. It was absolutely horrible and I couldn't even watch, just trying not to get too upset so Garth could concentrate on getting him free.

We finally managed to let him go safely. I would have preferred for him to sit down for a while but obviously as soon as Garth let go he was off. But then he tried to land on the boat again. He couldn't fly very well and just went up into the air and then landed back in the water before he could make it to the boat. So we hove to in order to make it easier for the poor guy, and he managed to get aboard and stand up on the fishing rod. I figured we'd done enough damage so I quickly turned the windgen off to make sure he didn't fly into that as well. He couldn't really balance anywhere and was obviously shaken up. He didn't want to sit down low, but the higher things were wet and slippery from the rain. He eventually satisfied himself with sitting on top of the gas tank. We opened a tin of salmon to see if some food would make him feel a bit better but he didn't seem too interested. He took some out of Garth's hand and bits of it went flying everywhwere, but he might have just been going for Garth's fingers rather than the food.

He seemed content to hang out there but after a while we had to get back on course. He didn't like being on the high side and was slipping and sliding everywhere. He decided he liked sitting on top of the ropes that work our windvane steering, but they're constantly moving and he had to work hard to keep his balance. Finally he sat on the edge underneath our life buoy, but he was getting tossed around from the big waves and after a while he slipped underneath the railing. He clung on by flinging his wing back over the lifeline for a while, but then he slipped and was gone. We slowed the boat down in case he wanted to get back on, but he flew off and didn't show any more interest in taking refuge. Hopefully he just needed a bit of time to recover from the shock.

I managed to get a shaky picture of him, but you can't really see much through the rain and the boat jostling about.

So I think it's safe to say we won't be fishing any more on this passage. Garth said he thought it was a turtle at first and he wasn't even going to tell me because he knew I'd flip out. If we ever catch anything but fish on our lines again I'm going to ban fishing on this boat forever.

In other news, we're still 145 miles away. This is getting ridiculous.

Day 49

Over the last 24 hours we've managed to get 10 miles closer to Panama. This is not ideal.

The wind swung round to the north today and the current from the north got stronger as well. So we can't head north into the wind and we can't tack back and forth because the current is just pushing us further south. So we spent most of today tacking back and forth along the same line, not getting any closer. It's infuriating. The wind has finally backed off a bit so now we're heading in a slightly more easterly direction, a few degrees north of our last tack. We've got enough fuel to motor for maybe another 100 miles so motoring the rest of the way isn't an option.

We decided to change headsails today. Garth pulled out our new number 3 Genoa, which has only been used once or twice and hanks onto our inner forestay. It heads into the wind a bit better and we were hoping it would help us get a better angle. So he took it up to the bow only to find that the track for our inner forestay had been ripped from the deck. We hardly use it for the sails, but the spinnaker downhaul connects to the deck fitting on the track. We have been using the spinnaker pole.

That deck fitting was one of the things we had to change to get our CAT 1 safety certificate in NZ. It was also one of the things we thought was unnecessary and only did it to humour our inspector. He wasn't happy with the inner forestay track, so we had a solid bracket installed in the forward berth under the deck for extra reinforcement. Even our rigging guys thought it was unnecessary, but they installed it anyway. The extra huge bolts that attached the track to the deck and go all the way through into our bedroom in the bow have been shorn clean through. They're less than two years old! But there's been so much force on the damn thing over the past week that it's just ripped up off the deck. So that was both disappointing and infuriating.

We're about 20 miles off the coast of Panama at the moment. Unfortunately it's not the part of the coast that we're aiming for, but it's still there. We're also right next to what appears to be an unmarked shipping channel, where cargo ships and tankers have been filing past in neat little lines all day. This afternoon we came across what looked like a big Navy ship but it turned out to be the Coast Guard. They called us up on the VHF and we gave out our registration details, the number of people onboard, our last port of call and our destination. They took a long time to get back to us so I think they actually checked our information with somebody. The guy had a gorgeous American accent and it was very exciting to actually talk to another human being. I think his was the first voice we've heard that wasn't our own in 49 days. The last people we spoke to were in the Gambiers and the radio has been transmitting nothing but silence and static since we left.

After that we started hearing occasional chatter over the radio as we got closer to the shipping lanes. It's quite late at night now and something weird just happened on the VHF. With no explanation or warning, somebody just started blasting out an old song on channel 16. He left it going for about 30 seconds and then there was silence. I figured somebody had just accidentally pressed the transmit button on their radio, giving the whole of the Gulf of Panama an earful of his woeful music selection. But usually when that happens the last thing you hear is along the lines of 'oh bugger' when somebody realises and then turns it off. It was quiet for a while and then the same song came on again, this time for close to a minute. The lyrics went along the lines of 'don't worry, we'll meet again.' Then it stopped and there was no more noise over the radio for a long time. I was confused, but Garth thinks it might be two ships who know each other and they both play that song every time they pass one other. Which is a terribly sweet and romantic notion and I really hope that's actually what was going on.

Hopefully we manage to get closer tomorrow, but I'm not holding my breath.

Day 51

Last night was terrifying. I cant remember the last time I was so scared.

I was on watch for the first half of the night, and spent the time lying in the cockpit under a full moon as we slowly drifted east with the whisp of a breeze. It was actually a pleasant night for once, mostly because I love it when we have a full moon. I looked up at one stage and saw something odd sticking out from the solar panel. I got up on my tiptoes to see over the top, and found that we had a stowaway bird just chilling out up there as the boat rocked back and forth over the tiny swell.

About halfway through my watch I noticed there was some sheet lightening going off way over on our starboard side. It was a long way off and that's the way the wind was blowing, so I wasn't too concerned. Just before it was Garth's turn to be on watch some scary clouds appeared on our port side, and more lightening started appearing in front of us. Before long we could hear the thunder. The clouds on our port side formed quickly and were a big black gloomy mess like the storm we managed to steer around the other day. They soon took over the whole sky and looked very forboding.

This was about whem the bird decided to jump ship, which in hindsight we should have taken as a warning.

Garth decided to keep our course for a while, not really sure where we should go. It looked like there were two storms forming, the one on our port side and the one further away on the starboard. We turned on the engine and wasted some of our precious fuel trying to get a bit of speed to escape before we were completely engulfed by it. This did nothing. As we tore ahead the clouds on our port side started bumping into each other and making a racket as they lit up the sky. Shortly after, fork lightning started raining down off our port bow. Then it moved across our path and was directly in front of us. Before we could make a decision on where to go, a massive bolt of lightning smacked into the water right in front of us. It wasn't close enough to do any damage, but it wasn't a spindly little spider web in the distance. It was like a thick white blast that shot straight down from the sky. Not good. Shortly after that another one came down, even closer than the last. It struck the water with a deafening crack right where we were looking. Everything went white and it was so close and so bright that I couldn't see anything at all for a few seconds after it struck. Garth grabbed the wheel and did a 180, then cranked the speed up as we tore off in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately we had the preventer hooked up to stop the main from flapping around in the light winds. Garth tacked the headsail over while I was given the job of climbing up onto the deck to undo the preventer. My hands were shaking as I tried to pull the pin on the clip, acutely aware that I was touching at least three different metal things all at once in the midst of all the lightning. Meanwhile Garth was freaking out that we were about to be fried to a crisp, and he tried to curl up into a non-metal touching ball as soon as we had turned around.

It turns out Garth is really, really scared of lightning. Growing up in Australia I was surrounded by thunder storms all the time and used to love watching them from the safety of our verandah. Garth grew up in NZ and has seen lots of wind, rain and snow but not a lot of lightning. It seems he has a natural aversion to being struck down by electricity. He's never scared of anything, so this was new for me. He does a lot of stupid things with an alarming lack of fear, but he was not happy about being in the middle of the ocean surrounded by raw electricity that he had no control over.

Once we were on course he sent me downstairs in a protective display of manliness. He wanted me to be safe, and yelled at me every time I poked my head up to look at what was happening. So I lay in bed, terrified, as Garth tried to take us away from the lightning. Every flash of light that came flooding in through the windows was a constant reminder that we weren't safe and that Garth was still outside and still terrified, all on his own.

Even though I'm used to lightning, there's a big difference between being snuggled up in your house under a blanket as a storm rages outside, and actually being outside in amongst it all. We haven't worn any clothes on this passage because there hasn't really been any point. It's hot and we'd just end up with dirty clothes. But I suddenly felt very, very exposed standing naked outside in the dark as lightning violently struck the water all around us. There was absolutely nothing seperating us from the elements. I felt much better tucked up in bed with a sheet over my head... it's amazing how much safer you feel with a thin scrap of material to protect you from the outside world.

So that was pretty much the opposite of fun. We eventually managed to put some distance in between us and the storm and we both calmed down a bit. But we ended up having to go south for a while, which put even more distance in between us and Panama. We also wasted a lot of the fuel that we'd been so carefully saving. Yesterday we had almost enough to motor the last 100 miles, but now we have significantly less after running the engine at such a high speed for so long. Though at the time we were both so scared I don't see what else we could have done aside from just get the hell out of there.

The galley during the day

The galley at night

The day wasn't a total disaster though. Early yesterday afternoon I was upstairs fiddling with the sails when some dolphins appeared from behind us. It wasn't a small pod and we were overrun by a mass amount of them as they passed by us in a wave. They weren't normal. I'm assuming they were spinner dolphins, because they were absolutely mental. They would fling themselves out of the water any old way, before bellyflopping back down again. These were not graceful dives. They were like kangaroos, just hopping straight up and then bouncing out again as soon as they had landed. They would wiggle their tails in the air, writhing around as if somebody had thrown them and they were trying to get their bearings before landing. They made huge splashes as they hit the water. It was absolutely hilarious to watch them as they slowly headed off towards the horizon. I could still see them for at least an hour, just little black shapes flying through the air and crashing back down. It was kind of like watching the chaos that happens when you try and make a pot of popcorn with the lid off - they were just relentlessly flying everywhere, in all different directions. They didn't swim by the bow or hang around to say hello, but I loved them anyway. Mostly because they were completely mental.

Day 52

Last night was just a scary repeat of the night before. I was on watch for the first half, as we just drifted southwest with the current again. The wind completely died yesterday afternoon after it let us sail about 20 miles in the morning. A tiny breeze had finally shown itself and we were actually pointing in the right direction when sheet lightening started off in the distance. It wasn't going off very often and was just a few flashes in the distant sky, so I wasn't too worried. Plus it was off to our starboard side, which was the way the "wind" was blowing. So in theory it should have been blown away.

After a while I could hear thunder in the distance. I couldn't tell whether we were getting closer to the storm or if the sound was just being carried a long way seeing as it was such a calm, still night. I woke Garth up a bit early regardless, because I didn't think he'd appreciate me deciding it was his turn once we were in the middle of another storm. We tried to figure out which way to go, but it was impossible. By 3am the whole northern sky was lighting up with sheet lightening and we couldn't tell where the actual storm was located so we could steer around it. We couldn't see which way it was moving either, with so little wind. So Garth started the engine and motored for a while, hoping we were heading away from it and not directly into it's path. I went to bed and left him in charge.

He managed to avoid it. However, there was another storm just behind it that he couldn't see until he was past the first one. This one came bearing mass amounts of rain, so then he couldn't see anything at all including where the clouds were moving or which way they had come from. I woke up about an hour later to find Garth sitting outside desperately wrenching the sails into place, his hair plastered to his face from the rain whilst the sky was lit up from all directions. The engine was going full ball and the rigging was shaking from the force of having all the sails up. Once he was done fiddling he clambered downstairs all soggy and frightened, shut the hatch and pretended that nothing was happening.

We hooned along at 8 knots for ages as the storm put on a show all around us. The thunder was loud and the lightning was relentless. Just as we thought it was starting to back off, Garth stuck his head up to have a quick look around for boats. Which was an exercise in futility seeing as the rain blocked our view of everything. We couldn't even see where all the fork lightening was landing through the rain.

Just as he came inside and before he shut the hatch all the way, there was a massive snap right outside that nearly deafened us. It was followed by a blinding light and the sizzle of electricity as lightning struck the ocean very, very close to us. We grabbed for each other in the darkness and stayed huddled in the doorway until we were sure that the boat hadn't been fried. We both automatically looked at the chart plotter to make sure that it was still working. Luckily, our electronics lived to see another day. After that we grabbed everything we cared about and stuck it all in the oven. Camera, hard drive, phones, tablet... all our valuable electronics. We've never been close enough to lightning to need to do it before, but the oven is what most people turn to in the midst of a lightning attack. It's essentially a metal box, so it's supposed to act as a faraday cage that keeps everything inside from being fried by the static electricity. I have no idea if it actually works. Either way everything went inside except my phone, which I was playing games on to stop myself from being completely terrified. I was actually shaking with fear I was so scared. I suspect this was mostly because Garth was clearly very frightened and he's usually the one to tell me not to worry.

Unfortunately our laptop doesn't fit in the oven. This is bad news considering we will be seeing storms like this for the entire time we're in Panama. Once we get to shore we'll have to sort out a makeshift box for the laptop to keep it safe. I think this whole situation would be a lot less scary if we were at anchor and could unplug everything when we saw a storm coming, including the chart plotter and the autopilot. Unfortunately we need the chartplotter going in order to see all the boats around us, so our brand new toy was left to fend for itself.

After that there weren't any other lightning incidents quite so close. Garth eventually turned the engine off and we continued to sail west at 7 knots. West is not the right direction. But we didn't want to tack and head north into the storm again just yet. At least we weren't going south.

Once the sun came up there was still lightning everywhere. It's a lot less scary during the day because you can't see it unless it's quite close, but it's still no fun when it's close by. We started drifting round in circles again after the storm backed off and the wind died yet again. This left our number of miles covered over ground yesterday at something like 10. We are not making good progress.

Today we're finally heading north-east again, which is where we want to go in order to get closer to Panama and avoid the massive shipping lane filled with boats heading to and from the canal. We're still going past boats all the time even though we're on the other side of the bay to where they normally go. But we can avoid them easily because they all show up on the AIS. We're travelling at 2 knots now, which should at least get us within 100 miles by the end of today. We're not going to arrive tomorrow, and probably not the day after either unless we get some solid wind. I'm not sure if our nerves can stand another night of running from storms and we definitely don't have enough fuel to do it again, so hopefully we just get there soon. I'm beginning to feel a bit like those crazy people who chase twisters. We get right up in the storm's business and then turn around and try to run away before it consumes us. But we don't know where it will go, so we end up running in the same direction or back towards it, only just narrowly escaping with our lives. I'm not going to watch the movie Twister again for a while.

Day 53

Something exciting actually happened yesterday. Well, exciting considering we've been at sea for 53 days and nothing much ever happens. We've just been drifting all afternoon, which isn't that bad because the current here isn't too strong and we're being pulled southwest at under 1 knot. Which is a big improvement on the 2 knot current that we got caught in further west. We were just sitting here not moving when a big cargo ship appeared on the AIS. It was heading straight for us, but it was an hour away. Surely in an hours time we would have moved the 50m it would have taken for us to be clear. But an hour later we hadn't moved and it was still aiming straight for us.

It adjusted it's course three times to try and go around us. It must be difficult trying to avoid something just drifting in circles with no proper course. We were facing east but drifting west backwards. So on his screen he would have just had a triangle with a line coming out the front for the direction we were going. He must have been so confused when he got close enough to see that we were backwards! First he changed his course by the tiniest margin to pass behind us, which was the direction we were moving in. But it was going to be really close, with us ending up within 0.1 miles of each other. So he changed his mind and turned to pass in front of us, but then we started spinning around and the direction we were moving in would have been constantly changing on his screen. So he turned back to pass behind us again, turning a little further this time. I wanted to radio him but it was obvious he could see us and had it under control, so I guess there was no point.

We sat in the cockpit for half an hour watching the big ship go past us as the sun set. It was the first really pretty sunset we've seen since leaving the Gambiers, and the cargo ship sailed right in front of it for me. It was a huge ship at over 300m, built very square so it could still fit through the canal with maximum container capacity. It was loaded up heavily too. From a distance the containers looked like they were balanced precariously high on top of each other. They were just tiny boxes, so it was a bit bizarre to think just how big each one of them was.

The ship came so close that Garth actually had to put on pants and I wrapped myself up in a sarong. I waved at them and Garth said he saw movement from the bridge as they waved back. He had a pair of binoculars stuck to his face in order to spy on them properly.

Here comes the wake!

So that was our excitement for the day, unless you count the horrors of the storm the night before as the same day. It was nice to be able to bring the camera out as well, because we haven't had a chance to use it at all.

Now it's 1:30 am and yet again I'm sitting in the cockpit begging and praying that we don't pass under another storm tonight. It's about an hour before they usually hit. I keep hearing noises and whimpering to myself, but each time it has just turned out to be planes going past. It doesn't help that we're slowly drifting towards the strong current and the shipping lane. The seas are flat and glassy as I just sit here waiting for wind. To make our impending doom even spookier, there's a thick fog rolling out over the water.

A very light breeze is just starting up, which means there's evil clouds sucking up all the air nearby as they get bigger and scarier. I really want them to start moving away from us, taking the lightning that's building up with them. We're 100.6 miles from Panama. Just a little further...


So last night turned out to be not so bad. The storm passed in front of us and made it's way over to our starboard side which was downwind, where it just sat there being a nuisence. It was close enough to make us uneasy but not close enough to be too scary. I took to counting the seconds in between the blinding flash from each fork of lightning and the deep growl of thunder that eventually followed. I have no idea how much slower sound travels than light, or how far away the storm was for each second of difference. But so long as they weren't happening together I was happy, after learning the other day that when you're right in the middle of a storm the bolt of lightening and clap of thunder are instantaneous.

It was close enough for me to not want to be outside all night though, and I had to hide downstairs while the rain poured down and the sky lit up. It's insane how far a bit of light can travel for in the dark. During the day you can't even see lightning when it's far away, but at night time the whole sky is filled with the flashes even when you're nowhere near the storm. It's very unnerving. But Garth wasn't scared so I figured we were safe.

Tonight is even nicer. The storm of the hour is raging well behind us, so that we can't even hear the thunder. This is the kind of lightning I love to watch. The sky is constantly being broken up by forks of spindly light spiderwebbing across the darkness, but it's nowhere near us. So I'm sitting outside under the safety of the moon watching the show.

We actually had wind all day today, which was amazing. It started to pick up last night when the storm was building and then it just kept going. We're tacking back and forth in between the Las Perlas Islands and the shipping channel to Panama at the moment, with just 48 miles to go. I'd like to say that we're going to arrive tomorrow, but even though we're going 4 knots we're only doing 2.5 over ground because of all the tacking. If only we were going the other way like all the normal people. I don't care that we're going slowly though, because at least we're going. We're probably within motoring distance now, assuming we have a bit of fuel left in the tank. We've got 20L of emergency fuel still tucked away so even if the wind dies again I think it's safe to say we'll arrive on day 55. Thank goodness for that!

We had a big pod of dolphins visit us this afternoon. I'm not sure what kind they were, but they were absolutely massive. I'm assuming they're the same ones we've been seeing everywhere lately because when I went up to watch them on the bow one did a massive flip on the starboard side and then a few seconds later another one jumped straight up on the port side. Or it might have just been the same one showing us how happy he was to see us. The pod was led by a lot of really big guys. Although they weren't all guys, because one of them had a teeny tiny baby swimming alongside her. I've never seen such a small dolphin before! They had white bellys and some kind of patchy white pattern along their backs. The younger ones didn't have any spots on them so the discolouration must form as they get older.

They swam by the bow for ages, jumping and playing. Then they disappeared for a while, but before long there were more. These ones seemed to be the spritely children being herded along in the middle. A lot of them were either quite small or medium sized and they were really fast. They didn't swim next to us like the other ones, but crossed back and forth in front of the bow and went in all different directions around the boat. They had energy. There were a few bigger ones keeping an eye on them but mostly they were just crazy kids. They stayed for ages as well and then finally moved on. About five minutes later more dolphins came by, but these ones were the serious grown ups. They moved slower and more deliberately. There was no playing or jumping from these guys. They had a place to be and they were just heading there in a straight line as they followed the rest of their family.

Dolphins are always good luck, so I'm going to choose to believe that they were showing us the way to Panama City. We haven't had any stick around and play with us for a while, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the bow with Garth watching them jump and play underneath us. It was really special seeing so many babies in the pod, who were absolutely dwarfed by the bigger parents.

So now there should be just one more day plus a few more hours until we arrive. I'm not holding my breath, but all fingers have been thoroughly crossed

Day 55

We're almost there. I realise I've been saying that for weeks, but now it's actually true. We're 23.2 miles away from our destination, and not only do we have enough fuel to motor the rest of the way but it will only take four hours. Finally! We're still trying to sail though, because we're doing 3 knots downwind and there's no rush until the night is nearly over.

There's lightning all around us again. I've become incredibly blasè about it now unless it's forked lightning and it's right next to us. This is far off in the distance, but it's a quiet night and the thunder is quite loud.

We saw land for the first time in 54 days this morning. It was a bit bizarre to see trees and hills instead of water and... well, more water. There's fishing boats everywhere around here and I spent my daytime watch keeping an eye on them as we slowly crawled toward Panama. They don't have AIS, which means you have to actually keep track of them. I've really grown to love big ships on this trip. They're big, so they're easy to see, and their route is always in a predictable straight line. They all have AIS and now that we have it too they all just go around us. Plus there's always somebody on watch so even though they're big and scary I'm pretty confident that they won't run us over. Fishing boats on the other hand are small and hard to keep track of. They run around in unpredictable patterns and usually aren't paying attention to what's in front of them, just assuming that we'll get out of their way.

The cargo ships have been amusing me today. They're all starting to get into line as they get closer to the canal, travelling up the shipping lane like huge, scary ducklings. It's not like the port in Bundaberg where they were lined up out to sea forever waiting their turn. I think they all have a prearranged time that their canal transit will take place, so the queue is already set without them having to physically form it themselves. Now that we're close to shore we can hear the port captain constantly talking to them over the VHF. Some of the ship names are absolutely priceless. My favourites for today are Morning Post, Tufty, Orient Orchid and Asian Christmas.

Today we started getting ready to get off this thing. We dragged out our water reserves and washed two sheets, two pillow cases and a towel. One thing I didn't really think about when we left on this trip was the sheets. Because of all the bad weather we've been occupying two beds instead of sharing one and spending our watches outside in the cockpit like we normally do. We've been inside for nearly the entire eight weeks. It's been hot and we've been all gross and sweaty, so the sheets didn't stay crisp and fresh for very long. But we only have two more sets and one was already dirty before we left. So we've been washing them in salt water occasionally but then they stay permenantly damp. The only way to get them dry is to rinse in fresh water. We've tried hanging them up in the rain after washing them, which has helped. But for the most part we've been lying in damp, dirty sheets for this entire trip. So I'm all ready to return to life at anchor, and am excited about crawling into our proper bed tonight under nice clean sheets.

We spent a while trying to tidy up as well, but we're fighting a lost cause. Garth has a tendancy to just put things down in stupid places without thinking about it and then they end up on the floor when we heel over. I'm not very good at keeping an eye on him, because I've just been living in the aft berth and the cockpit. About once a week I go through and tidy everything in the cockpit, but the rest of the boat hasn't been maintained so well. He's pretty much built a nest in the saloon, with junk piled up all around him and all over the floor. But today he finally got stuck into cleaning it up. Finally. So all these preperations have made it kind of sink in that we're not going to be at sea any more.

Another thing I didn't expect on this passage was all the hair. We haven't been washing or brushing our hair at all. Once every week or two I sit in the rain to get some fresh water through it and then dump coconut oil in so I can brush out all the tangles. Garth just left his until it formed a huge knotted up ball on the back of his head that took him four days of brushing and coaxing last week to undo. But I never really realised just how much hair we lose when we wash and brush it every day. A few strands here and there. But when you stop brushing and washing it, it comes out on it's own and ends up absolutely everywhere. I actually have to get the dustpan and brush when I change my sheets because the whole bed is covered in bits of hair. So with two of us with long hair, the entire boat is covered in it. It's going to take forever to recover it all and return our home to it's former hairless glory.

This afternoon a lovely American guy on a motor launch called us up and chatted for ages about Panama. He's spent a long time here and was just on his way out, and had a lot of information and advice for us. It was so lovely to actually chat to somebody after all this time! He got us really excited about getting to shore and made it all seem a little bit more real. And then we had to stay on the boat overnight after getting all excited. It was very anticlimatic, but made us feel a little better about being surrounded by people again. If they're going to as nice as him then I'm looking forward to it! He told us that Panama city is full of skyscrapers, which I knew. But it also has other big city things like a subway system. I can't even imagine being in a city big enough for a subway! I think Suva was the last proper city we were in, in Fiji. But it still had a very South Pacific feel to it, with markets everywhere and a very relaxed vibe. I'm not sure I'm ready to be thrown out of the ocean and into the middle of a bustling city. But here we go!

Dodging cargo ships as we're coming into Panama

Xxx Monique

Scary storms at sea

Batten down the hatches...