Our first sight of the Mahayana, which was to be our home for the next week and deliver us safely to Ecuador, certainly made an impression. It was as eccentric as its owner Richard Otter, or Richaard as he preferred to be known. The Mahayana, meaning spiritual enlightenment, was a 'pink' trimaran, and we were greeted by an enthusiastic black shaggy haired German Snouser called 'Helga.' Richaard casually informed us, Snousers were usually trained as attack dogs but Helga was little more than a puppy and was more likely to lick you to death than attack you. We later found out she did have an annoying habit of crapping all over the deck, especially on the ropes which was always a lovely surprise when we were raising the sails in the morning!
Captain Richard was a 70 year old Vietnam War Veteran (he wore the cap to prove it) turned spiritual hippy, who'd lived alone on the Mahayana for the past 27 years sailing down from Mexico. He had a particular dislike for Mexicans - 'they'd killed his Rottweiler!' Any romantic notions we might have gained from speaking to the retired couples at Balboa yacht club, all living out their dreams sailing round the world on their kids inheritance, vanished as soon as we climbed aboard. There was shit everywhere. You know the kind of squalor only single blokes seem able to live in. It looked like it hadn't been cleaned in 27 years and the smell from the galley was rancid.
The Mahayana was a huge boat with 3 bathrooms and 5 cabins. In her prime I'm sure she was beautiful but now every bath, shower and toilet was broken (full to overflowing with rusty chains, ropes and tools), there was no running water and the beds we were to sleep on were filthy. I was having second thoughts but Rob assured me it 'would be an experience' and despite it all the Mahayana did still retain a certain charm. She was a boat with character!
In total there were 5 people on the boat, Captain Richaard and 4 crew, which included us and two 19 year old German kids, Monika and Heindrick. Between the 4 of us sailing experience was sketchy at best. Rob had sailed a few dinghy boats in his youth, the rest of us had none.
My first experience of crewing was at the helm, steering us safely out of the Panama Canal. I haven't been at the helm of a rowing boat let alone a huge trimaran, in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Everyone else was busy on deck and I was left to negotiate our way through the maze of cargo ships. I was petrified, my fear only heightened by Richaard's occasional screams of 'hard left' to avoid us being toppled by the wake coming off one huge ship or another.
Safely out of Balboa, we passed Tobago Island and raised the sails. Lesson 1 with capt. Richaard involved lots of shouting on his part and rushing around on ours, but we learned a few knots and managed to get under sail with little incident. Rob did manage to lose a life jacket overboard but we were on our way.
Unfortunately, that was to be our last sailing for 4 days. The next few days were hell, the weather turned and as the seas became increasingly worse the wind changed direction to be dead against us, we were forced drop sails and motor. The crew were all seasick. I battled a combination of sleep deprivation and sickness, made worse by the stench of wet dog and dog food. As crew you are on a constant rota, never getting more than 4 hours sleep at anytime and sometimes being on watch throughout the night. I felt like a zombie, there was no escape and by the third night it was unbearable.
It wasn't that the seas were particularly high but the were rough or 'foul'to use boating lingo. The waves were 6ft high in 3 directions, I was on watch and struggling to keep us on course, whilst having to harness myself to the safety rope on deck every few minutes so I could throw up without going overboard in the wind and rain. The rocking and heaving of the boat was awful, I felt like death. There's nothing like deciding you've had enough when you're 200 miles from land and can't get off. I've read about people in round the world yacht races going mad and walking off the back of boats, and I had some sympathy with that.
By 3am we were getting nowhere, Richaard switched off the motor, told me to get some sleep and we drifted. In the cabin the noise of the waves against the boat were deafening, I had a dream about being underwater.
Surprisingly, given the smell by the evening of the 4th day I started to feel better. The stench in the galley had grown even more potent, made worse by the smell of the rotting vegetables we'd been unable to eat in the first few days. My body had begun to adapt to the sleep deprivation and to put it bluntly there was nothing left in my system to throw up.
I was on watch as dawn broke on the morning of day 5. The seas were calmer, everybody was asleep and I watched as a warm light broke across the ocean, flying fish skimmed the water and the occasional Sail and Swordfish leaped out in front of the boat. By the afternoon everyone was up and in high spirits. Even Monika who'd been bed ridden with sickness the past few days was able to join us for a meal of pasta, whilst Richaard told us one of his many stories from his military days. By 5pm we were sailing hard to the wind and there were blue skies and dolphins. A sure sign we were in for better weather. We watched the sunset as a school of more than 50 dolphins passed by leaping and spinning high in to the air. This is what sailing is about!
As the light faded, 3 pongas (small boats) with huge engines came tearing across our path out of the darkness. They had no lights and there were 6 men in each. Our hearts stopped, we were on the Columbia/Ecuador border and a week earlier, there had been a reported piracy. The guy had survived but had been set out to sea in his dinghy at gun point, whilst his boat was used for a one time drugs run and dumped in Panama. Luckily he was only 40 miles from land and we were considerably further out to sea than that. Whether it was drug runners or illegal fisherman we saw I wouldn't like to say, but they were obviously up to no good and we were relieved when we finally saw them vanish out of sight.
The following day passed without incident but the day before we were due to dock in Bahia Caraquez, Ecuador we were rudely awoken at 3am by a horrendous noise and Richaard yelling at us to get up. Dazed we discovered the noise was Richaard's, air horn (made out of an old scuba tank) and the noise was piercing. We were closer to Ecuador shores and there were fishing boats everywhere. They were tiny, some had faint stobe lights but most had no lights at all. They barely showed up on the radar and we were in danger of running over one of them. It was panic stations, as we sounded our horn some switched on hand held torches. It was a minefield and we were relieved when the sun rose and we'd passed through unscathed.
At 7am we passed the equator. Celebrated by the 4 of us jumping in ocean and swimming across. There's something quite disconcerting about jumping into the vast ocean with no sight of land, and it did cross my mind that Richaard was the only one on the boat and could have driven off at any moment.
Safely back on board we ate porridge to warm up, and spent the afternoon watching videos ( we had to wait for high tide the following morning before we could dock safely in Caraquez). Rob even caught a fish, he'd been trying all week! I wish I could finish the story there with Rob catching a fish and us overcoming the trials of the journey to all arrive happily in Ecuador together, but once we docked things took a turn for the worst.