Sailing to the Galapagos – a land of wonder

Sailing to the Galapagos Islands requires extensive preparation, but the rewards are other-worldly, as Jessie Zevalkink discovered

The first morning of passage sailing to the Galapagos Islands I leapt out of my berth at 0600, seeking an hour alone. I’d hoped to rise earlier for a full two hours of dawn and silence, but one will do. This one hour I will revel in, before the heat and my son Otis awakens.

The relief of the build up to our departure from Acapulco caught me off guard over the previous night’s fire sunset. It had been a long and winding day, at the end of six months of preparation for this passage.

Work had begun in early September, when an AIS transmitter and IridiumGo satphone were delivered to our doorstep in Michigan. Today, departure day, was February 4, and every single day since had been dedicated to this, but Alekona is ready to sail to South America.

Our passage plan was 10-12 days, crossing perpendicular through the wind gap of the Tehuantepec, where wind accelerates through the Chivala gap in Mexico. It’s the shortest distance over land that air flow can pass from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s not uncommon to see gale or hurricane force winds in the winter months 300-500 miles offshore, while satellites have tracked its leftover swell 1,000 miles into the ocean.

Alekona is a steel-hulled Endurance 44 built in 1983. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

It is widely known as a precarious place for Mexican and Guatemalan fishermen who have a history of being perilously blown out to sea and it adds an element of challenge for sailors who are otherwise passing through some of the calmer rings of the globe.

Timing the meeting between the force of Tehuano and Alekona is as important as not running a red light at a high speed intersection. Tehuano would happily T-bone us if we arrived too soon, or too late.

In the convergence zone, where the two halves of the world split into opposing dominant wind directions, we expected to be on port tack for half of our passage, tacking to starboard once clearing the Tehuano. The rest of the way to the Galapagos should be under light airs.

Our forecasts showed us the raging Tehuano was ultimately losing her breath. I give Luke, our navigator, full credit as he insists we leave when we do, trusting we would hit this junction with a steadfast green light. And we do: the seas are greater than the sustained winds, we never see much more than 25 knots.

My friend Jane, and Otis and I stay inside for nearly two days through the slop, which was the exact opposite of what I actually want to do. But by day four of passage I am finally able to release the tension I have been hoarding.

Galapagos marine iguana warming themselves in the sun on the volcanic rocks of Puerto Egas, Santiago island. Photo: Maridav/Getty

There were four and a half of us on board – a dream team. My tenacious husband Luke, a skilled sail handler and navigator. Callahan, a genius mechanic and keen sailor. Jane, one of my best land-dwelling friends and peaceful co-carer for Otis, my 14-month-old ham-handed, freshly walking son. And myself, insisting on combining cruising life with the tests of early motherhood.

This extraordinary journey into the sea and into my second year of parenting have taken all I am capable of giving. It becomes my one and only job on this boat, to keep Otis safe and on board. All of the other responsibilities I once carried as a cruiser have blown out to sea.

The truth is that this is self inflicted suffering, and the rewards have to be earned. It is character building and physical conditioning. Tonight, four orcas ride the wake of our stern leaving bioluminescence at their trailing edge. They surface for air, with eyes padded in eggs of white and skinny cambered dorsal fins. The orcas are the merited reward.

Exactly as forecast, the wind shifts 140°. After 16 hours of motoring through the convergence zone, we prepare the whole interior of Alekona for a tack to starboard. It’s been one week at sea – the boys have run themselves out of beer and cigarettes and there is a significant difference in behaviour today.

Life aboard during the 10-day Pacific passage. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

Callahan hasn’t stopped moving. He uses chores as a distraction method and can’t sit still. Luke is the opposite, he hasn’t got out of bed. In the doldrums, Jane and I manage a workout circuit in the cockpit and after that, we all go our own ways, each spending time in the four corners of the boat. It’s quiet aboard Alekona.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzip. The bungee on the fishing line snaps. I shout that we have a fish. I grab the hand-line and give it a tug. I shout again, “It’s big”. I try to pull again but the line is so taught it plays like a guitar. I shout again, “Hurry!”

I’ve never seen Luke and Callahan move so quickly. They fight back, sweating hard, with a hand reel shoved in the crevice of Callahan’s armpit and Luke pulling in just a few inches of slack, one wind at a time.

The fish deep dives, racing port to starboard. The anticipation is incredible, and we can’t see what it is until it’s just off our transom and begins thrashing about the surface. A shark? Marlin? Billfish? Swordfish? Whatever it is, it’s the size of Luke, who’s 6ft 3in, at the very least. We’re all yelling with excitement, and no one knows what to do.

A pair of red-footed boobies take a break on the pulpit. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

The fish is beautiful. He shakes himself free when inches from the transom, and we all fall backwards, breathing heavily and laughing, laughing so hard I have tears in my eyes and my belly hurts. Not in our wildest dreams did we have the tools to hoist a 150lb fish out of the sea, with a hand reel and a broken gaff. This blue marlin, an absolute trophy fish, was forever the most incredible fish we never caught.

Land appears

Land Ho occurs on the morning of day 10, and 15 miles to starboard. The Equator is 33 miles dead ahead and followed by Wreck Bay, our port of call, 90 miles away. Spirits are high and the champagne and beers that Jane and I hid from the boys were still ice cold at the bottom of the chest.

We have a team meeting about getting in the water and scrubbing the bottom of the hull. The Galapagos officials request our heart, soul, and savings to grace their islands but most importantly they want all vessels sailing their waters arriving immaculately clean.

Diving to scrub the bottom clean before the Galapagos visit. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

You are required to check in with them when 24 hours out and have an AIS transmitter on during the entire length of your stay. No algae, no barnacles, no molluscs can be attached to the underside of your vessel upon arrival, otherwise they will send you back out to sea (with a professional diver for a fee, if required). It is recommended to dive and clean your own boat, 40 miles offshore before arrival.

The thought of being turned away after 10 days was heart-wrenching. We counted down the minutes to crossing the Equator, popped our champagne and jumped into the sea with masks and fins and scrubbing brushes. Although we paid a diver in Acapulco to thoroughly clean the hull the day before we left, 10 days at sea was more than enough for Alekona to accumulate growth.

Anyone attempting this should plan it wisely, and scrub their hulls when weather permits within the last few days of passage. Combine it with a celebratory Equatorial crossing swim, and a cold beer to help stave away any fear of shark-filled waters.

We have little expectation of what we will see, do, taste, hear and smell when we arrive in the Galapagos. Our entire journey so far has been about paperwork, preparation and the passage.

We hired a company called Yacht Agent Galapagos to facilitate our permit. We began communication with our agent, Javier, four months in advance, sharing our passage plans and intentions. It’s still unclear to me if it is actually a requirement to have an agent permit you into the islands. The agents will tell you that it is, the internet suggests otherwise.

Welcoming party of Galapagos officials. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

From our experience working with Javier, it was worth every penny and if you do not go through an agency, good luck to you in clarifying exactly what it is you need to do. Our entry fee for a 47ft sailboat and four crew totalled $2,561.

Our final 12 hours put us in Wreck Bay on the western side of San Cristobal, in the middle of the night. Night-time arrivals tend to create tension between Luke and I. While I lean to the more conservative approach, he quite enjoys the challenge.

I am so anxious I resist any form of rest during my off watch, so instead come up and take the helm. Ultimately we make our landing under the stars at 0200 on February 14. We snake into a small bay, slowly, and with reasonable night vision are able to locate unlit vessels at anchor. We secure our anchor between tour boats, and when the engine is off the silence is filled with the calls of sea lions. For the first time in 11 days we all sleep at the same time.

Eight officials arrive at 1000 in a yellow and blue panga. Half of them are chirpy, smiling and ready to welcome us to the Galapagos, the other half serious, quiet and ready to find something wrong with our vessel. A man in a wetsuit dives directly from the panga into the sea to inspect the hull. The other seven board Alekona one by one, stacking themselves like dominos in our small cockpit.

Throughout the next hour there are temperature checks and a health inspection. They look at our negative Covid results and vaccination cards. The agriculture department digs through cupboards to make sure food is stored properly and uncontaminated.

Health checks for all upon entry. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

You need a fumigation certificate and sanitation certificate from the last port of call. You need placards stating you will not discharge black water. They check our vessel maintenance records, looking for oil changes, fuel filter changes, etc. They are looking to confirm that you diligently maintain your engine and bilge area and do not intend to service it in their waters. They are seeking cleanliness and responsibility, preparedness and good seamanship, all of which is reflected aboard Alekona.

Thirty minutes into our inspection the diver boards the boat with a thumbs up. We all breathe a sigh of relief. Jane and Otis play in the cockpit and the port captain begins to crack a smile. In less than 60 minutes our passports are stamped and our agent hands us an official ensign of Ecuador and the Galapagos, which we proudly hoist.

Before he leaves, he also gave us a local SIM card and answered all of our questions about trash, diesel, water taxis, tours, and moving from port to port.

Exploring the Galapagos

Darwin’s finches, tortoises and turtles, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, hammerheads, manta rays and marine iguanas – for an archipelago of 20 islands, there are a thousand words that come to mind when we hear the word ‘Galapagos’.

Sea lions resting on the beach at Gardner Bay on Espanola Island, Galapagos. Photo: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

Its geographic location has made for geological and biological wonders. Situated at the seam of two hemispheres, it’s home to both tropical and arctic wildlife that has been greatly protected by the Ecuadorian government. Some 97% of the land is National Park, while San Cristobal, a town that’s home to around 6,000 people, is quaint and tidy.

I couldn’t find a single particle of microplastic in the crevasse of its street curbs, and you have to pay a bottle deposit when you buy even a single beer. We step over sea lions and iguanas to get to the other side of the road.

It rains hard and Otis re-learns how to walk on the main street of San Cristobal, sopping wet and smiling to be free. At sea, we spent every waking minute holding him back, keeping him on board being far more important than letting him explore his agility. In the streets of San Cristobal I can let him go.

He stumbles and falls and learns from his mistakes. He makes others smile and his autonomy is admirable. We all spend a few days doing very little but resting and appreciating space from one another. Just like Otis, we are all pleased to converse with others and to take some time off Alekona.

Memorable encounters with sea life. Photo: Jessie Zevalkink

The streets are lined with polished store fronts and friendly faces, open air restaurants and charming cafes. The islands are protected in such a way that prevents visitors from doing much on their own, and they survive economically thanks to tourism. There are many restrictions in place, and maps guide you where you can walk, hike, and snorkel without a guide. Otherwise, you need to book a tour.

After six days in San Cristobal and a tremendous snorkel tour to Kicker Rock, we are full of adrenaline thanks to an encounter with a school of hammerheads. I thought I’d be frozen while in the water with them, but I wasn’t, and when they swam deeper out of sight I wished for their return.

The spinnaker goes up and we are off to the next port on Santa Cruz Island, just a day sail away. It feels like we are a team again when we set sail. Luke and Callahan are in their element trimming the spinnaker. Jane and I sweat in the cockpit with dips and push-ups while Otis sleeps. We don’t know what’s ahead and we’re all excited by that.

There are three ports in the Galapagos you are allowed to sail into, each a sandy bottom anchorage. There are no docks to tie up to, and no marinas. Water and fuel can be ordered in advance, they deliver it via boat and only accept cash.

Puerto Ayora is the largest city with the most active bay. Boats anchor bow- and stern-to, facing the incoming swell. Our agent Javier and his colleague comes out in a panga to assist us with the stern anchor and give us a ride to shore. You are required to check out of, and into, each port, letting your agent know at least 24 hours in advance and expect to pay another (not so small) fee of $1,030 for each port.

Average life span for a Galapagos giant tortoise is more than 100 years. Photo: Cultura Creative/Alamy

Internet is poor all over the islands. It doesn’t matter if you have a local SIM card or a wifi booster. You’ll need to exercise patience and do most of your research by foot and speaking with locals. There is plenty of information and resources at every corner, just don’t expect to find it on your phone.

We take another remarkable snorkel tour, swimming with sea turtles, playful sea lions, marine iguanas and white and black tip sharks. We trek 10 miles with Otis on our backs to Isla Isabella’s iconic Volcano. Sierra Negra has lava fields and it’s the closest to outer space I have ever felt. We rent bikes and wind down dirt trails. We hire a truck up to drive up the jungle and into ancient lava tubes. We learn about the great tortoise, observing babies the size of our palms and grandparents triple the size of our bodies.

We meet few sailors. There are maybe a dozen yachts, most preparing to cross to the South Pacific or on their way to Panama. And because no one keeps their dinghy in the water (to stop it being colonised by seals), we mostly wave to one another at anchor or chit-chat on the VHF. It is a huge privilege to be able to sail to the Galapagos Islands and no simple task to be permitted in.

Blue-footed booby on the volcanic rocks. Photo: Horizon Images/Motion/Alamy

If I could pass on advice for cruisers dreaming to sail here, I’d tell you to come armed with curiosity and cash, fully provisioned with flexibility, time, and zest. If you arrive well prepared checking in with the officials is seamless, if ill-prepared expect to head back to sea.

Once cleared in, invest your resources in spending your time under water – snorkel and dive and kayak and swim, for there is sea life you’ll likely not experience anywhere else in the world. Spend evenings finding swimming holes and parks filled with locals raised on the islands who grow up to be naturalist guides, environmentalists, activists and protectors of the earth. There were plentiful lessons to be learned from the Galapageño and sailing there was one of our greatest privileges.

Getting to the Galapagos

A 90-day cruising permit for our 47ft yacht with four crew cost $2,561. National Park entry fees are $100 per person, a flat yacht fee of $144, migratory cards $20pp, and immigration fee $31.20pp.
You’re required to have an AIS transmitter with MMSI number and ship’s station licence ($1,000 if not already fitted).
You must have your vessel fumigated at the last port of call, with a physical certificate as proof ($200).
You must have three separate bins for compost, recycling, and waste, each labelled. Authorities expect you to have a waste log, tracking the amount of waste you accumulate and where it is going. The environmental risk assessment is $50 per member of crew.
On arrival the hull must be immaculately clean, don’t forget your prop and bow thrusters. Expect to show a receipt, video or photo footage, or better still, a physical certificate ($125).
The Galapagos (and mainland Ecuador) operates using US dollars, and is a cash economy. ATMs have a $200 limit, and few businesses accept credit cards. Bring cash and all your cards to make sure you have multiple ways to extract cash
Prices reflect American tourism. Full day snorkel and dive tours are $100-$250 a person, half-day adventures around $75. Food and lodging costs are comparable to any American vacation town.
You must check out of your departure country with an International Zarpe. Departing from Mexico cost $400.
Don’t keep your dinghy in the water, as it will be colonised by seal lions! Water taxis are reliable and available from $1-2 per person, each way.

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