Day 145, Year 1: Caught . . . Off the Coast of Columbia
Date: Saturday, March 11, 2006
Daytime Air Temperature: 83 degrees F
Weather and Wind: Sunny with a few clouds; winds 10-15 E/SE
Water Temperature: Didn’t Check Today
Latitude: 04 degrees 38 minutes
Longitude: 082 degrees 45 minutes
Location: Panama to Galapagos Passage, Day 3
Miles Traveled: 400
Miles to Go: 498

Today was the third day of Windbird’s Passage to the Galapagos. When I sent yesterday’s log, I mentioned that we were still in what I call “frantic” mode and not really settled into our watch schedule. So as the evening of day two approached, again we had worked all day and we were tired. I went down to get some rest at some point, and was awakened from my brief sleep by Mark talking on the VHF radio to Patrick on Aqua Magic. As I have mentioned, we are traveling in tandem with Aqua Magic and keep in regular radio contact. While I had been sleeping, Mark and Patrick spotted the lights of a boat headed directly for us. It is unusual to have a boat heading that directly for you, so they decided to alter course. They figured it was either a pirate situation or a fishing boat trying to shoo us away from a netted area. But when they altered course, the boat did as well. That made them think it was not a fishing boat. They turned off the running lights and played cat and mouse with this boat for a while. Finally, after altering course to head almost due north, the boat headed behind us. By this time, I was up and on the radar and spotted another boat. After watching carefully for quite some time, it appeared to be going behind us, so we relaxed a little and Mark turned in for his first sleep of the night. I think it was almost 0200 and he left me with directions to slowly resume our course. As I did so, I immediately saw more lights ahead. I got Mark up and asked for his opinion on what to do. At first there was one boat, and then another. Mark recommended that we alter course again to go around the boats. I talked with Patrick on the radio and we decided to go around leaving these boats to starboard. Then another boat appeared and we spotted flashing green strobe lights in the distance. Patrick was sure that we were entering an area with fishing nets and that the flashing lights were probably guard boats to warn us to keep out of the netted area. Once again we altered course. It became evident that the lighted boats were not moving, indicating that they were indeed fishing boats. After we passed the third boat, the flashing strobe light started moving clockwise until it was finally behind us. We really couldn’t figure out what was happening, but we thought it was safe to resume course. As I did so, I realized that this was taking me closer to the last boat than I liked, but I thought we were probably fine. Just as I thought all was well, I heard Patrick on the VHF telling me that he was caught in a fishing net. He was right behind me, so we couldn’t figure out how I had escaped, but I had and he asked if I could come back to stand by to help. At this point, I got Mark up again and we decided to head back ever so slowly. Patrick had gone into the water by this time to access the situation and it didn’t look good. The net was huge and was wrapped around his rudder, his sail drive, and his prop-and maybe even the entire keel. We were going to have to sit tight until first light and then use our snuba gear to dive on the boat and cut Aqua Magic free.

Being at sea, we couldn’t set an anchor, so we kept the motor running and put it gear when we were drifting too close the fishing boat or to Aqua Magic. I thought we were getting way to close to the fishing boat and Mark put the boat in gear to move away. And then . . . Thunk! We immediately disengaged, but it was too late. Now we were caught as well. Then we heard the bilge pump come on, go off, come on again. Obviously, water was coming into the bat. There is a packing gland around the prop shaft that keeps sea water from coming into the bilge, but evidently the pressure on the prop from the net was causing a problem and we were taking on enough water to keep that bilge pump busy. Mark quickly fixed that problem, but obviously we were a bit shaken. It was about 0415 at this point, so there was nothing to do but wait for day break. I fried some eggs and made toast knowing that once we had daylight, we would have a couple of hours of work to do to get ourselves freed and we would need the energy to do that. Then I laid down to catch a quick nap. Mark stayed on watch.

I awoke suddenly when I head strange voices yelling at us. The sun had come up and the fishing boat was trying to get our attention. They needed to bring their net in and we were certainly in their way. The fishermen looked friendly enough and didn’t appear to be angry with us for fouling their line. The boat was an old one with more rust than paint, but I could read the name on the back-the Queen Elizabeth flying a Columbian flag. She had come to free us!

Mark had all the dive gear out and ready to go, so he quickly put on his dive skin and got into the water. The fishing boat came closer. It was just a little disconcerting to have a fishing boat flying a Columbian flag come along side us with one man waving a very long knife at me, but I understand that he wanted Mark to cut loose the netting-at least that is what I hoped he wanted. Mark had already gone down without a knife and thought he might be able to get us loose without harming the net, but that was wishful thinking. I went below to get a big knife the size the man on the fishing boat was continuing to wave at me. I gave that to Mark and now the fishing boat was right beside us which was pushing the netting against the hull. I was afraid Mark was going to get caught in the net. The fisherman spoke no English and I speak no Spanish, but I smiled and motioned for them to pull away slowly. They understood and started to back off, but in backing away they turned were not in front of us. The fishermen on deck were pushing off our bow pulpit. Finally they were at a safe distance, so I relaxed a little. All of the fishermen seemed very nice and had obviously had this situation before. They wanted to know my name and I wished that I could have talked with them as we waited for Mark to come up again. Finally, he emerged and it was evident that the net was loose from Windbird. Now I motioned to the fisherman that there was a second boat caught in the long line. Aqua Magic was probably a good half mile away from us and at the end of the line. We headed that way, but saw that there was no way for us to get close to them. There were floats all around them. We decided to put our dinghy in the water so that Mark could motor over to them with the snuba gear. Patrick was going to need our gear in order to dive down long enough to cut Aqua Magic free. Thank goodness the seas were fairly calm. When I lowered the dinghy motor, it was evident that we were in the ocean and not in a quiet anchorage, but we got the motor in place and Mark took off. All I had to do was keep Windbird from drifting back into the net. After what seemed like hours, I saw that Aqua Magic was motoring toward me with Mark in tow. The Queen Elizabeth was reeling in the long line and it was time to move on.

By the time we got the motor and dinghy back on deck and stored away, and got all of the snuba equipment washed down and ready to put away, it was almost 0900. That’s the time for the Panama Pacific Net that we check into each morning. Mark went down to get on the radio, and right then I spotted whales all around us. All I wanted was a quiet, peaceful, uneventful day, but the whales had chosen this time to visit. After what we had just been through, I was sure that we were going to be hit by a whale, but we survived. They were pilot whales and there were a couple that dove under the boat, but they quickly moved on. Whew! Now I was really ready for an uneventful day.

After the net, it became apparent that the light winds of the night had strengthened and that we needed to set sail. Aqua Magic had already done this and they were pulling quickly ahead of us. We put up the main and the headsail and had an absolutely delightful day sailing on calm Pacific seas. The red tide has disappeared, so the water is once again blue. We were able to sail all day and continue to have a 1.5 to 2 knot current heading in our direction. Even with our “detour” last night, we are still making great time. As the sun set this evening, the winds died down, so we are now motoring into the night. I am on first watch and so far there have been no other boats in sight. I could really go for a night with no lights in sight other than the moon and Aqua Magic’s running lights..

One note about the snuba gear. When we bought this gear at the Annapolis Boat Show, it seemed like a lot of money to pay for something we might not use. We attach the snuba motor/generator to our starting battery and attached the long yellow hoses to the generator. It pumps air into the hoses and allows you have air for diving just as a dive tank would do. This allows us to dive for maintenance purposes or to dive off the boat or the dinghy for pleasure. It’s a little loud and takes time to set us, but it sure paid for itself today. The snuba gear gets our stamp of approval as a necessary item on a cruising boat. If you have dive tanks, of course, you wouldn’t need this equipment. But one or the other is absolutely necessary once you are out here and have to be totally self-sufficient. You never know when you might get caught in a long line and have to set yourself free!!

060311 Day 145 Caught Off the Coast of Columbia