The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bahía Honda, Panama, 19 November 2007

My God! We’d arrived in paradise! Six days and 6 hours out Ecuador, we are alone at anchor in the most exquisite cove on the Island of Coiba.

Well, actually, it is a little, privately-owned island just off Coiba called Isla de Ranchería. Coiba was for a century a penal colony. Eventually someone noticed that it was the last stand of natural first-growth tropical forest and turned it into a national park. We did not plan to spend any time there so picked Isla Ranchería to stop and thereby avoid paying the $10 per head park fee.

Every arrival is special. To have the bouncing and heeling and the noise of wind and rushing water and engine finally stop. But this spot is really perfect. Kathleen has two glasses of red plonk before dinner and is literally blathering about how perfect it is. On three sides green, jungle-covered low hills. At the head of the bay a sandy beach. Nobody around. Only the sound of tropical birds and small waves hitting the beach.

It is late afternoon and I can hardly wait to jump into the crystal clear emerald water. It is so clear you can see the anchor sharply below us and the chain snaking out. The water temperature is perfect. You can see the whole of the under parts of the boat while swimming. Like the boat is floating in air. What bliss! Stretching out to dry on the deck afterwards!

I get to work making a vegetarian goulash for dinner, our first real warm meal since we started. The first few days we lived on sandwiches and fruit or the cold roast chicken we had bought before leaving Bahía. By the time dinner is eaten and the dishes washed up using salt water and a fresh water rinse, darkness and total silence enclosed us. The stars look close enough to touch. We hate to leave the deck but want to read below. By 1930 the lights are out. We sleep for nearly twelve hours. I go on deck once at night: the stars are still like fire in the clear sky above the cove.

We might like to stay here for a day or two but Kathleen is under some time pressure. She has told her proofreading customers that she will only be unavailable for a week. I wanted her to take two weeks but she didn’t feel she could. Moreover, she is flying out of Panama City on 27 November and doesn’t want to arrive in Boca Chica with only hours to spare. We decide, however, to make a few stops along the way.

The first one is here, at Bahía Honda (Deep Bay), on the Panamanian mainland about 16 Nm away. A weak breeze is already up by the time we finished our coffee at anchor at Isla Ranchería and once again exclaimed about the beauty. Last night as we were approaching it we could see lots of rain clouds and lightening over the mainland in the late afternoon. This morning it appears clear. But late afternoon tropical squalls are the norm, we understand. The winds are right: after a week of southwesterlies, the breezes are now NW.

We had heard of cruisers making the run from Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, to Boca Chica in 3-5 days. It took us over six days and even then, when we were becalmed, we motored about one-quarter of the 150-hour trip. Nearly everything worked fine on board although there were minor glitches. One of the less minor problems, though, was that our mainsail ripped apart at the patches while we were trying to reef it down. It is completely useless now and lies strapped to the main boom. This did not dispirit us particularly since we intend to have a new suit of sails delivered to us in Panamá before crossing the South Pacific next summer. Until we get to Boca Chica, however, we will be dependent upon headsails alone unless we rig the small storm tri-sail.

By 0900 we have sailed off our mooring and are on our way to Bahía Honda to the NNE of us 16 Nm. We have sworn to make as little use of the engine as possible. This is not just because we like the challenge of sailing in and out of harbours and because we dislike the noise of the engine in these silent coves; we also realise that diesel fuel in Panamá costs $3.60 a gallon as opposed to the subsidised $1.05 per gallon in Ecuador (always assuming nowadays that foreigners can even get fuel in Ecuador). We play with the windvane steering but eventually switch to the tiller pilot, which gives us no problems whatsoever. The day is sunny with a lot of watery clouds around. We see rain clouds drifting across the line of mainland hills ahead of us and suspect we might be getting a deluge ourselves this evening. November is said to be the rainiest month in Panama before the dry season on the Pacific coast starting for three months in December. This is certainly different to coastal Ecuador in the dry season with its high layers of grey marine haze.

At Bahía Honda we sail through the mile-wide bay entrance and turn north to get up into the upper reaches to find a quiet anchorage again. We make it under our genoa alone to within about a quarter mile before the wind dies completely under the lee shore. We give up, turn on the Lister and pull down the sail. By mid-afternoon we have anchored in another paradise of beaches and jungle-covered hills. We hear birds and a rushing stream somewhere under all that foliage. The temperature is perfect and I strip off and jump overboard as soon as we can get the swim ladder fixed into place. Perfection! We can’t believe our luck to be in such a beautiful place. We keep saying that it reminds us of British Columbia except the air is balmy, the water is warm and the hills are covered in palm trees and other tropical vegetation instead of Douglas fir and red cedars. Again, we are completely alone in this big land-locked bay.

Still lolling about getting dry, we first see and then hear a brightly-coloured dugout canoe with a small motor heading our way. Aboard are Edwin and his 10-year-old son, Kennedy, and some puppies, one of which is shivering from either the wet or from fright. Obviously not a sea dog! They come alongside and we pass the time of day. Where are you from? Do you have any children? Where have you sailed from? Edwin and others provide delivery services to yachties anchoring here: fruit and vegetables, eggs, fish, beer. Whatever. They want to barter for gasoline for their ancient outboard, for fishing lures, flashlight batteries. Anything, really. Bahía Honda has no road to the outside world, or at least it did not when the cruising guide was written. The village and the residents have electric lights. But these might be supplied from a generator. We ask them to get us a parga (sea bass) of about 2 lbs. and Edwin says he will be back in two hours at 1700 with the fish and some fruits and vegetable. He putters off.

On his way towards shore he passes another dugout (this one with a newer 4 hp outboard) that is on the way to visit us. The skipper is Kennedy (it’s amazing how many men in Latin America are named after American presidents: Kennedy; Washington; Jefferson; Wilson; Lincoln; Roosevelt; Truman; Nixon. So far I have not run into anyone named Reagan, Clinton, Carter or Bush). Aboard is his pretty wife Olivia and 8-year-old daughter, Melanie. They too want to barter and even bring some ripe bananas as a first instalment. I give them some fish hooks and a couple of lures and some AA+ dry cell batteries. Kennedy looks a little disappointed. But we have already commissioned Edwin for supplies. Eventually Kennedy and crew also motor off, though not before asking if we can repair his new outboard. It appears to be stuck at high speed. Of course, we carry no gasoline on board (we row or sail our dinghy) and haven’t the foggiest about how to repair an outboard. I have enough things to keep in good nick as it is!

Promptly at 1700 Edwin arrives back, this time in a tropical downpour and with a lively elderly man named Domingo on board. Domingo is the Lider and he has brought us fresh pineapple, spinach, bananas and oranges. But no fish. We dicker for a while and pay them $3 for the lot (the fish was going to be $1 a pound; we have no idea what the fruits and vegetables should cost herein remote Western Panamá. The smallest change we have is a $5 bill. Domingo takes it and promises to be back the next morning sharp at 0800 with the red snapper. We’ll see. I give Edwin some fishing hooks and batteries. What he wants, we find out later from the dictionary, are anzuelas, i.e., lures. He looks over my box of stuff but thinks nothing is suitable for the fishing around here. Salmon, maybe. But not parga or tuna.

It is still raining so hard that, as they leave, they disappear into the deluge and I lose sight of them after a quarter of a mile. I strip off again and enjoy a freshwater shower on deck. I also haul up the two headsails here at anchor in the windless bay and let the heavy rainwater rinse the salt off them. The squalls seem to come with no wind. But the skies seem to open up and the intensity and volume of the rain is incredible. It is amazing how much water is pouring off the sails, salty-grey at first and becoming clear in a few moments. The boat deck is streaming water and simultaneously slushing off all the salty grime from the week-long voyage. After so many months the old drips reappear beneath the sliding hatch, strategically placed to drop on the back of your neck whether you are facing the galley stove or the galley sink. No matter how much I have tired over the last six and one-half years aboard Vilisar, I have never been able to trace the source of these leaks. Because this is the tropics, the air and the water warm, and since I am already wet anyway, I decide not to be annoyed.

Dinner consists of noodles with the “creative” sauce left over from yesterday but much pepped up with a can of black beans, some tinned tomatoes and rather too much red pepper flakes. Our sunburnt lips protest but we sling it down with gusto. While Kathleen washes up near the cockpit, I go forward to flake down the still damp but now soft and clean headsails and tidy up around the deck. The sunset behind the nearby hill glows pink and gold. The birds give us a final chorus and then go silent. The nearby stream has increased its volume and is gurgling merrily after the downpour. Everything drips. Everything has been washed clean. There is a slightly rotten smell of wet jungle two hundred feet away. Everything seems ready for the night. The katydids pick up their high-pitched night song. By 2030 Kathleen is sound asleep on the starboard berth. A late night.

Isla Calvado, Isla Secas, Panamá, Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The silence in that large tropical cove at Bahía Honda was so complete that only the daylight woke us after so many hours. The loudest noise, seriously, was the clicking of the ship’s clock. Stiff from lying so long and from handling anchors and halyards over the past few days, I crawl on deck for a look-see. No change. We have not moved an inch. It is windless completely and everything is still drippy-wet. The t-shirts and towels we hung out to dry on the lifelines last evening after the rains are, if possible, wetter than ever. But the sky at least is a promising blue except a bit in the east where the sun is at present trying to gain the ascendancy.

Time for a coffee. Kathleen wakes and stretches at the smell of it wafting through the cabin. The best alarm clock. Everything feels much damper here than in Ecuador. We discuss about how to prevent mildew and moulds but I fear that may be a losing battle. I worry about the wood rot started by fresh water even though I love to get the superstructure rinsed properly. I shall have to keep slushing the decks and cabin down with salt water. Down below, however, we realise that cotton and leather are likely to suffer. Even in relatively dry Ecuador leather shoes and belts became covered in mildew unless used regularly.

We have both just finished reading E.M. Forrster’s A Passage to India. And, over breakfast, we talk about colonial attitudes and snobbery and our white, European arrogance towards other peoples. If nothing else, our travels up and down the Pacific coast where we have encountered indigenous and mixed-race people have given us much more awareness of how horrid we “Europeans” were and are as we/they expand around the world. The best solutions to racial tensions seem to have been fashioned in bed. In Venezuela, the mestizos (basically everybody except the ruling elites who like to keep themselves racially pure) can talk easily about different skin colours because they are all a mixture of some sort. This by contrast to the U.S.A. or Europe where, although there has been plenty of racial mixing (Slavs, Teutons, Celts, Picts, etc. etc. etc.), there has been so little mixing with darker races. In the U.S.A., it is almost it seems impossible to talk about race. Any discussion is a minefield. It was much easier to talk about it In Venezuela.

Except for the mandatory morning coffee, we have long ago given up traditional breakfasts. Kathy sometimes eats a bowl of instant oatmeal made with powdered whole milk and raisins. This morning, we throw the leftover noodles from last night into the sauce, heat it up, add some cut up bananas to the spicy mixture and eat it with delight while seated on the cabin top. We are determined to find some good uses for bananas since they are so plentiful and cheap. After the visits of the locals yesterday we have plenty – yellow, green and red ones - and they are ripening rapidly. This meal is an excellent first go. After scraping the bowl clean, I decide on another quick swim before we put out to the Islas Secas, our day’s destination. The water is refreshing. Terrific, in fact! I paddle around for a while and, when I come out, we are nearly ready to go.

I forgot to mention our encounters with the large freighters and warships in our voyage up to Panama. Of course, the entry and exit to the Gulf of Panama and the Panamá Canal is one of the most frequented shipping routes in the world. We ran into traffic on our first night out, ships headed north/south from/to Guayaquil, Callao and the South Pacific. But on our last night before arriving off Isla Coiba, the ship traffic was really heavy. Most of the ships were at a distance and running at perhaps 15 knots with only a few lights including navigation lights. Once I was calculating that we seemed to be on a collision course with a large freighter coming up from the port quarter. While I was still hesitating a voice came over the VHF radio without any identification saying we should go behind. Without actually responding on the radio, we immediately and clearly altered course to port. The disembodied voice thanked us over the radio. Obviously, his radar was able to calculate collision courses and, with this very informal advice, saved us a lot of worry. Since our alternator was again not charging the batteries (as it turned out, it was only a fuse), we frequently left the running lights off when we were alone at sea. But in this area we left them burning. No doubt, the freighters thought we were local fishing boats.

In the wee hours of the morning, one vessel comes steaming up fast on our port quarter - very brightly lit with a very long line of white lights from stem to stern. She was mightily huge and far too close to us. We watched her make a speed that was probably twice that of any of the other ships. It was pitch dark, moonless and cloudy, and we could not really make out the superstructure. But the red starboard nav light was much, much higher than the line of white lights and we suspected that the nav lights were on a darkened conning tower. Given this and the size and speed we guessed it must be an aircraft carrier. American no doubt, since who else has ships of this size? Who else even has aircraft carriers? In the space of 45 minutes it had appeared over the horizon, passed in front of us and disappeared over the horizon ahead bound for the Panamá Canal. I can’t say that its presence made us feel any safer.

Domingo, the local dugout chandler, failed as promised to show up with a fish at exactly 0800. They guys who showed up yesterday all more or less stated that we were anchored too far away from their base camp and this required a lot of tiempo y gasolina. I would have been surprised if Domingo had actually shown up after that comment. We didn’t seem to have much by way of trading goods that interested them anyway.

Inside Bahía Honda the waters are calm; no swells reach inside here. We pull up the anchor and start motoring about 0900, it taking some half hour or so just to get to the harbour mouth. There we encounter W or NW swells but they do not slow us down at the beginning. We have no mainsail at present so we hoist the staysail as a steadying aid and let Navico take over the steering, I go below to read and snooze; despite the bright sunshine, Kathleen stays on deck where there is more breeze. At our initial speed the little motoring voyage should take about 7.5 hours to an anchorage just inside the SE island in the Isla Secas.

But you have to be flexible if you are a sailor. As the day wears on the breezes blowing from the NW increase and so do the wind waves. I suppose you could say that we are lucky that the waves, the swells and the winds are all from the same direction. Unfortunately, they are at about 10 or 11 o’clock to our rhumb line. A sailboat with a small auxiliary engine cannot really expect to plough into winds and waves and swells and still maintain any sort of speed. Such a motor is really just for plain vanilla uses, i.e., calm waters, windless days, setting the anchor, coming alongside a dock, etc. Use your sails for anything else. Of course, that would have meant tacking endlessly to windward to reach the Islas Secas and we would unlikely have made it in a single day.

As we bump into the waves and roll around with occasional slop coming down the port side deck and through the cockpit and with occasional spray being flung up and then back across the foredeck, our speed drops from 5.5 knots down to about 3 knots. The voyage is starting to get longer. We wish we had got going earlier in the morning while the seas are still flat. Will we always have to re-learn that lesson?

When it becomes clear that we are not going to make our original target before darkness falls at around 1830, we cast about for another haven. On the southernmost island there is a little tucked-up bay which may or may not be open to NW swells. The problem is that, if we make a detour to check it out and it is unsuitable, we may not then have sufficient time to make it to the main island, Isla Calvado where there is a very safe and large anchorage. We opt for safety and make a beeline to Isla Calvado; inside the cluster of rocky islands that make up the Islas Secas, the water is calmer so that arrive well before sunset to anchor in about 8 feet of clear water over sand and rock.

As usual, I lower the anchor, Kathy backs the boat down while I lay out, chain, test the set, and then let out a big pile of chain. Normally, unless there is a lot of wind or current, we never move from this pile of chain. Over on the mainland we see the typical afternoon rain clouds massing around the mountains and then enveloping them. We had a taste of how heavy the rain can be last night at Bahía Honda. Here, farther offshore, we might actually be spared as we were at Isla Ranchería two nights ago.

As darkness and silence falls, we put together a spinach salad with onions and little green jalapeño (with nearly all the seeds removed), mixing an oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. I feel like a cow eating this stuff. I actually like spinach. But this batch tastes far too earthy for my taste and it’s leathery (to boot, I almost said). Kathleen is determined to eat salad today, however. After a bit of badmouthing of the salad by me, even she caves in to my offer to convert everything to a cooked dish. Unbelievable as it sounds, it turns out to be a great dish. I simply dump the salad greens, onions, peppers complete with salad dressing into a frying pan, spotted four eggs around the top and let all these ingredients get chummy with each other until the eggs yolks are nearly hard and the spinach and onions soft. Delicious with toast or bread.

We stick it out until about 2000 before the lights go out. My last check around the foredeck before turning in reveals light scattered clouds and bright stars overhead. There is enough breeze still coming over the yoke of the island that Vilisar remains pointing straight at her anchor and towards the beach. Back in bed, I can occasionally hear the anchor chain on the bottom and, of course, the ticking of the ship’s clock.

Sometime in the night, however, I am awakened by the loud patter of raindrops on the skylight. Coming out of a deep sleep, I rush to lower the skylight openings and push the sliding hatch closed. I have at least learned to put everything away on deck that might suffer from the rain and to close the lazarette hatch when I am not around to pull it closed. I have no idea how long the squall lasts: I pass out after drinking two glasses of water. Those jalapeños!

The long day either on deck in the lovely breeze and the sunshine or below in the shade but the heat from the engine takes a toll. The signs of dehydration are inability to complete basic physical tasks or outbreaks of frustration and anger. Yesterday afternoon Kathleen and I wind up shouting at each other about some minimally important GPS issue. In no time we are nearly screeching at each other. I recognise the symptoms, though I am not immune to getting them myself. We both need electrolytes and lots more water. Once, while sailing in the Adriatic with some other guys, I spent four or five days in 40oC daytime temperatures. Coming into the harbour nobody was in a position even to tie a bowline and the helmsman, a man with First Mate papers in the British Merchant Marine, rammed the stone jetty nearly head on., fortunately, at only a couple of knots. (Fortunately, too, it was a rentaboat. But I digress.) Still sitting with his hand on the tiller, he apologised in a rather dozy English manner while the rest of us just stood around stupidly instead of tying the boat to the dock. A German cruiser asked us if had been taking our salt pills. That was the first clue. So take your electrolytes and drink lots of water, hear?

For those of you who do not know this stuff, you can get little sachets of electrolytes or sueros at pharmacies in Latin America. They are designed for babies who have had serious diarrhoea; there is usually a picture of a baby on the front. Normally, sueros consist of sodium chloride (table salt), potassium, calcium and magnesium or at least some of these. In Mexico (and perhaps elsewhere, though I did not see it in Ecuador) you can also buy sueros in bottles of flavoured water (apple is the best) but it is a lot more expensive that way and, of course, it takes up more room on your boat and is heavier to carry home from the supermarket. We mix the powdered stuff with some sort of sugar-free Kool-Aid-type drink (B-Light or C-Light) by the glass as needed.

Promising ourselves to get going early, I have had one cup of coffee, a swim, prepared the boat and pulled up the anchor by 0800. We ghost out of the anchorage, trying to make the gap between the island and a subsidiary rockpile. Even with both headsails up, however, we are unable to squeak past the rocky out-island and need to throw on the engine. Our bearing to Boca Chica, today’s destination some 18 miles away, is to the NW again and therefore straight into the waves and swells. So we would have had to motor it anyway. The winds are so far light, fortunately. If we want to arrive at high tide we need to be there by noon.

Just as we leave we are hailed by a small sloop that had been anchored at the far end of the big bay when we arrived last night, I put the caller off for a minute or two while we deal with the rocks. Later we chat on VHF radio. The little red sloop is Merlyn from Hawaii. The (solo?) skipper has just spent two months in Boca Chica but was disappointed that the water there is so murky. Merlyn is now on his way to the Caribbean. “Oh, yes! I also do electrical and engine work, if you need it,” he adds. (Later I hear that his engine has failed him completely and, still at Isla Calvado, other cruisers and fishermen have been bringing him engine parts and food.)

Arrival at Boca Chica
As we get closer to the land, the winds change to come at us more strongly from the NW. Our bearing to Boca Chica puts us too close to the wind to sail. So, we motor. Anyway, although it is definitely possible, you don’t get much drive with only headsails and without that big mainsail (the mainsail ripped along one of the patches around a sail batten when I tried to reef it down. Since then we are using only the headsails.) In the end we motor it. The day is sunny but hazy. I tend to stretch out on the berth in the main cabin when I am not on watch. Kathleen, on the other hand, likes to sit on deck in good weather despite our open, i.e., unprotected cockpit. When the Navico or the Cap Horn handles the steering for us, she will sometimes move forward from the cockpit to find some shade near the mast. But her skin has definitely darkened noticeably over the past week.

Our aim is to be off Boca Chica at high tide around noon. The approach obliquely from the SE brings us past a broken coastline of rocky but green muffin-top islands: although everything green flourishes there, there is always a somewhat narrower base of dark rock to mark the tidal zone. Ergo muffin tops. The waters off Boca Chica are being combed by large shrimpers. They drag the bottom, bringing up everything they find even though only about 10% is actually shrimp. The sea bottom, we have read, is apparently an eco mess after only a few passes, and the harvests of shrimp declining. The skipper of one rusty shrimp-boat waves to us as we pass him close by.

We arrive betimes off the entrance. There are no marker buoys or navigational aids although we do have a sketch of the entrance. It points out that there are a lot of hazards and to stay on this side for one part and closer to that island for another part and don’t hit anything if you must. We make it in one piece though I realise that the little floating buoys we passed at one point were not after all crabpots, as I had believed, but markers for submerged hazards. A good thing we are nice guys and skirt them.

At the dogleg where the fast-flowing ebb tide meets the estuary, we see the little collection of five sailboats ahead of us. One of the boats is S/V Carina out of Seattle (Leslie and Philip) who we are eager to see again after Bahía de Caráquez. There is Canadian boat there too, S/V Aquastian out of Campbell River, BC, as well as the little tri-maran, Sparta, and a very long (60 feet?), canoe-shaped, three-masted, ferro-cement schooner called Marco Polo. There is also a very salty looking gaff schooner called Kirkham Annie out of British Columbia.

We make a circle of the anchorage and head up-river towards the village of Boca Chica itself. But we decide to turn around in the swift current while the river is still broad and head back to the “suburban” anchorage. The sailboats lie under two luxury resorts and actually use the floating dock of one of them to land. Our first attempt at anchoring fails: the anchor seems to be to be dragging. Up it comes and we go in a little closer to shore and get settled in about 16 feet of brownish though moving water.

First we bag the sails and rig the awning. The sun is already getting hot. While I continue to putter away and then to enjoy a can of warm beer in the cockpit, Kathleen is eager to get online to notify both our families and her clients that we have arrived safely and that, as far as work is concerned, she is back in Cyber Space. Her frustration at failing to get online from the boat is exacerbated by the dehydration from so many hours and days in the wind and sun. She is on the verge of both jumping ship and tears. We decide to wait until the next morning to check out onshore facilities. By that time Philip and Leslie might have returned to Carina.

Sure enough, in late afternoon several inflatable dinghies put out from the dock not far away, stopping at Vilisar to chat. One of them has Leslie and Philip aboard. We also meet Michelle and Dennis (Aquastrian), Jim and Suzie of Sparta/Marco Polo and Mike and Kaye of Finisterre. They have just returned from a shopping run to David. The first answer to internet access is that we can get it onshore for usurious rates ($3 per hour) at Gone Fishing Resort (aka Gwine Phishin’). We have to take our own laptop. At least access is possible thought the days of cheap surfing are over.

The late-afternoon sky is filling up with high cumulus and lightening has been spotted. The others head off to their boats. Sure enough, just after dark we are the beneficiaries of another enormous downpour. We have already had a light wash-down in the afternoon. But this is really intense. Now, even with the awning to cover the cockpit and aft part of the cabin, we have to batten everything down including the sliding hatch and the skylight. I get my fresh-water shower for the day. We have already finished our frittata for dinner in the cockpit and have started a new canasta tournament below. Kathleen hesitates and then decides that the opportunity is too good to be missed and heads out on deck with her shampoo. The awing catches water so she could simply tip it over her for the rinse. We shall soon find a way to catch and cache that rainwater so we do not have to lug jerry jugs from somewhere.

It is only a few days now until Kathleen flies to Baltimore and on to Germany. She will be gone for three months this year with several weeks to visit her family in the States and to work on the musical in Frankfurt for two months.

Not sure what I shall do. I would like to get back out to the islands, which are really seriously gorgeous. On the other hand, I need to deal with some boat issues. I would dearly love to get Vilisar up on the hard, strip all the paint off her hull, topsides and bottom, possibly treat her with penetrating epoxy and repaint everything. There are several spots on the topside planking to which paint will not adhere. I have sanded them, treated them with thinned down varnish. And still they blister up. I have come to the conclusion that the Alaska (yellow) cedar used for planking is so resinous that paints will not always stick properly. It is the old grey paints nearest the wood that have picked up water blisters. The wood looks like new when you expose it. Perhaps I shall move up to Puntarenas in Costa Rica and haul out there. It would be a nice solo voyage.

It is a day-long bus ride to the airport at Panama City. Since Kathleen’s flight is the morning of the 27th, she would likely have to travel there the day before and find a place to stay. I don’t like that idea since the big cities in Panama are notoriously dangerous. Maybe she can get a feeder flight from nearby David. Anyway, we have a few more days together.

We have talked about the trip up here from Bahía and how easy it seemed to us. We are regular old salts now. However, we both believe that we need to make some improvements on the boat. Some of these are for convenience: one of the toughest jobs for somebody my age, for example, is climbing out on the bowsprit in all weathers and sea conditions to bring in a headsail. The bigger ones, the genoa or the drifter, for example, can be a real b…. to get down and tucked away. It is physically very demanding and Kathleen is also frightened that I will go overboard some night leaving her alone to find me (or not). We are considering purchasing a furling genoa. Classical sailors pooh-pooh them. Others say they are prone to jamming at the wrong time. But, if I am honest, when I see how easily solo sailors roll out that big genny, I sigh with envy. And, from what I hear, the latest ones are pretty reliable. But they are quite expensive and need a rigger to install properly.

An hydraulic or electric anchor-windlass would also be nice though I don’t actually mind hauling in the anchor chain in by hand. That damned windlass is almost as much work and has never performed properly anyway. Even the builder, George Friend, said it never worked well and he never used it.

Our new mainsail will be batten-free, loose-footed and with a soft head. This means I can use the lazy jacks again. I finally took them down in frustration because the heavy metal head to the mainsail was constantly catching itself up in the lazy jacks. No battens will also mean fewer weak areas for the sail to tear. (All our tears – play on words intended - have started at the batten pockets.)

Inside the cabin, it is definitely way past time to get some decent mattresses and upholstery. We wake up most mornings with lower-back pain and sore hips and shoulders. We use normal cotton sheets to cover the existing (increasingly old and flat) sponge rubber. Something more durable would be good. We don’t mind being without a refrigerator; they are expensive to operate making a cold beer the most expensive drink you will ever enjoy. Even on long runs we are quite happy on our vegetarian (fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, etc.) and fish diet. But it is probably time to get a new galley stove. The one we have works on top but we have never trusted the oven.

Finally, the wiring for the whole boat is overdue for replacement. Although the electrician was very complimentary about whoever did all the existing wiring, the actual (untinned copper) wire was now corroding badly inside the insulation and has been spliced and added on to so many times over the years that it was vulnerable. Maybe we could incorporate some energy-efficient LED lights.

So, we are making priorities, making budgets. Who knows? We might even get this all stuff done. For the moment, we are just enjoying the tropics.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

At sea between Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, and Boca Chica, Panama, Friday, November 16, 2007

It never ceases to amaze me that different days have different times. A day in a sickbed can be interminable. A day on a pleasant outing flies by in next to no time. The thought arises here because, after a rapid succession of days in Bahía de Caráquez while we prepared Vilisar for her next voyage, finished up our last-minute tasks and said our good-byes, we are now entered on our sixth day at sea. The pace has slowed. We stand our night watches between dusk and dawn; the three-hour shifts have now become almost routine (it helps that the nights and days are so conveniently arranged here near the equator to be almost exactly twelve hours each). We have got back into the habit of cooking again after six months of eating out in Ecuadorian restaurants. As such, and without refrigeration, we are back de facto on a vegetarian diet until we get organised enough to get a fishing line over the side. We have picked up nearly seamlessly the old shipboard habits of keeping one’s space tidy, preparing light meals, arranging the berths with lee cloths and pillows to avoid being rolled out ignominiously and unexpectedly onto the cabin sole, wearing a hat at all times out on deck. In a minute or two now we straighten up, sweep around and wipe down the cabin of dust, debris and, if possible, obvious deposits of salt. At regular intervals during the day we check the GPS and mark up the chart with our position, enter the details into the log book, calculate the distances run and the average speeds achieved. Some might find all this tedioso, but it is refreshingly slow for us. These days at sea have different times.

Leaving Bahía de Caráquez, I had been anxious about travelling near the Ecuadorian coast at night because of the hugely extending sand banks and the plethora of fishing nets and drift lines. The only appropriate exit tide across the harbour bar at Bahía, however, was late afternoon. We decided therefore to take that opportunity to exit the estuary but, once outside off the town’s beach, to anchor overnight in the so-called “Waiting Room”. Normally only arriving boats wait there until the tide allows the pilot to bring them into the Rio Chone estuary. We ourselves had parked there 18 months ago for a few hours.

A small gaggle of boats is leaving with us; it is the season for departures from Bahía. Now that the hurricane season is over in the Caribbean and Mexican Pacific coast, now six-month tourist visas are expiring, cruisers are getting ready to leave. First out that afternoon is the junk-rigged Gaia, with Damon and Desiree aboard, bound for Hawaii. Then Austrians Karl & Alexandra with their two pre-school boys aboard S/V Muk Tuk and Alexandra’s parents, Erich and Erika, and their second daughter Claudia aboard S/V Timoun motor past us just as we were heaving in on our anchor chain, grunting to get the heavy CQR up onto the bow rollers. This physical work has not got any easier after so long at anchor. Fortunately, however, I have cleaned the anchor chain of all the slim and growth1 that makes it impossible to get a real grip on it. Lots of waving and “bon voyages” as the three yachts pass. We had especially grown to like this family of three generations who are now setting out together on a 7-week voyage south to Chile via Easter Island. At the end of the parade of boats comes S/V Vilisar.

Crossing the bar without a pilot is a bit of a Nervenkitzel, as the Germans have it. There is no pilot at present in Bahía; the pilot is a full-time skipper of one of the car ferries and his car ferry is off in Manta or Guayaquil for an overhaul. But there are reliable coordinates and GPS waypoints available from other cruisers; there is even a set of coordinates on the Puerto Amistad virtual marina website ( We had also saved our inbound GPS track so could compare several routes out. It is important to get it right since there is not much depth to spare. We draw five feet even before we load the vessel down with all our gear. In fact, the old depth sounder shows only seven feet for quite a bit of the tortuous and curvy route out. We laugh to ourselves that the exit is more nerving than the thought of a long bluewater voyage.

The night at anchor within sight of the town is a bit rolly. Kathleen, anticipating her normal 3-day bout of nausea at the beginning of each passage, debates taking some medication but opts instead for the ineffective-looking acu-pressure wrist cuffs that we have been carrying for years now in a drawer under the chart table. Somebody ashore recently showed her how to use them properly and she is pleasantly surprised to find that they actually work. She has been pretty much free of symptoms and has been enjoying the trip from the outset.

The late afternoon, evening and early morning at anchor permit us to finish stowing for sea. The main cabin is now orderly although the forecastle looks a bit like Fibber McGee’s closet. We have moved sleeping into the main cabin and use the forecastle now only for storage. There is a semi-orderly jumble of various items that might be needed at sea (the para-anchor and spare headsails, for example), on the one hand, and things that will definitely not be needed at sea (mooring ropes, dinghy oars, spars and sail), on the other; we try to make the items that will be needed in the cabin during the voyage easily accessible but for which there is no stowage space there (food items, for example) easily accessible. The cabin is hung with net-bags of fruit and vegetables. The cold, roasted chicken that we bought from the pollo asado place in town is parked near the galley to serve as an early meal. Putting to sea with pre-cooked food is “take-away” with a vengeance.

I am up several times in the night because of the rolling. The waves are not large but the wind and the surprisingly strong current parallel to the beach are not in agreement. Given all the electric lights on shore including the big illuminated crosses, however, it is easy to check the reference points I had picked when we anchored yesterday. The anchor is holding. Farther along the deserted beach under the large sandy cliffs, I spot a couple of lights and assume them to be fishermen pangas.

But, no! We awaken as usual at dawn to find that Muk Tuk and Timoun, whom we last saw disappearing over the horizon yesterday afternoon, are also anchored off the cliffs about a quarter mile away. We had said we would leave at dawn. But we are slow getting started, tired after the hectic days of preparation. And, after letting our curiosity build and waiting a decent period to let them drink their coffee too, we call our friends on VHF. Timoun’s gear box broke down in the night, Alexandra tells us, and Muk Tuk towed her back to shore in the dark. Believe it or not, her father, Erik, has a spare gear box aboard and he and Karl are already rectifying the situation. When we have finished our coffee and spent an hour or more stowing everything reasonably well, we motor past them on our way out to give a final wave and greeting.

The sandbars from the river mouth extend for a couple of miles out to sea to the west and northwest. Waves break over them somewhere at nearly all stages of the tide. At the neaps the sandbanks lie exposed for miles. At one time Bahía de Caráquez could accept large ships. But the widespread removal of the mango forests to make way for shrimp farms as well as the two large earthquakes in recent memory have caused the river mouth to silt up. The Armada del Ecuador might charge yachts a Lights & Buoys each year, but so far none of this money has ever gone into marking channels or demarking the sandbanks. The only navigational aid at Bahía de Caráquez is the lighthouse at the river entrance; don’t steer for it at night! In fact, even so far out from the beach where we were anchored the water was only about 10 feet deep.

We therefore motor until we are well clear of all the sand banks and, finally, after eighteen months, we get up all sail. The day is the usual overcast with high marine haze, as it always is for the dry season. But there is a 10-knot wind from the SW and, with all sail up and the noisy Lister, bless ér, at last shut down, we are scooting along on a broad reach at over six knots. Exhilarating! This is what we came for!

Moreover, the sails have all gone up with no hitches. Considering the length of time since we last employed them and given that the whole rig had been taken down while we repaired the mast last summer and then re-assembled, I am not smug but I more than a little relieved that everything has gone well. I tidy up around the deck, checking to make sure there are no imminent problems. I note that one of the shrouds seems a bit too loose and decide to re-tune the rig. This is not difficult but it is a little time-consuming and awkward when you are heeled over. The dinghy, now stowed over the forward hatch, has a tendency to want to shift to starboard as we heel. I do something about it and resolve to develop a more secure system when we get to Panama. Our mainsail definitely looks old with its 3M 5200 cloth patches everywhere. But it still looks strong. The small genoa on the jibstay looks clean and new; the staysail has patches too but is otherwise strong.

With all the sails pulling well it is time to set the Cap Horn windvane steering. The thrill of holding the tiller in your hand while you rush along is fun for a while. But it very soon becomes a chore since on long voyages you are generally sailing only long, straight tacks and not competing around the racing buoys. Every cruiser agrees that “hand steering” is the biggest single drag on long passages.

There are a lot of things we like about our Cap Horn: it is lightweight and petite, i.e., it doesn’t look like an oil rig on the stern of the vessel. When the boat is balanced, too, it works a quiet charm. Our biggest problem seems to get Vilisar balanced. Going to windward or on a reach, it is relatively easy. The acid test is with light following winds. We have discovered after a lot of experimenting that our big mainsail can easily overpower the windvane with quartering winds. We then either drop the main altogether or reef it down so the boat is being pulled more by the headsails than pushed by the main. We curse and swear in our frustration at times. But eventually we get it right.

Kathleen eventually also gets our Navico 5000 electronic auto-pilot functioning; we intend to use it when we are motoring. Of course, it also works without the engine running but it uses battery power and we don’t have a lot of spare battery capacity. And what do we have a windvane steering for, anyway? It definitely helps to have a Navico User Manual! We have been struggling with the electronic controls on our own and getting not very far. Thanks to Joe aboard S/V Panacea, we now have a proper manual. “Electronic Joe” Bayne also installed a new cockpit plug so we are ready to rock and roll. In (nearly) no time Kathleen has the little appliance set up and steering us. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Blessed relief from cold and rainy or night-time cockpit shifts! It is so much simpler to use than the windvane steering despite the little squeaks and squawks the little electric motor makes as it pushes or pulls the tiller back and forth. Since it only makes very small adjustments it does not in fact seem to be using much power.

We are both still tired and frazzled from the preparation days before departure, from the strain on our nerves getting ready to go and from adjusting to the action of the boat and the sleep-disturbing watch system. But slowly we are becoming adjusted to life at sea again. It hasn’t been hard at all, really, once you get caught up on sleep and you have everything working well. As I write, we are just starting our sixth day at sea and, while we both even talked in the first few days about giving up the cruising life, we are back on course. Start thinking about alternative lifestyles, and you soon arrive back at Vilisar. Starting any long voyage seems to be like going on a camping trip. You start off tired, eager for a change. But, the first few nights are generally uncomfortable, maybe even wet. Your back hurts and you are not used to the hours of sun and wind. Remember those awful first early mornings when you crawl out of your tent to go for a pee? On a boat your sleep pattern is also thrown off by the watchkeeping and even when you are in your berth, the boat is bumping along. The good news is that, after a while you learn to relax and love it.

My fear of running into drift lines or fishing nets near the Ecuadorian coast prove false. We see lots of fishermen but, to our surprise, they are all a hundred or more miles offshore in open pangas with outboards. We once see a larger fishing trawler farther away and think that the two-man pangas must be from a mother ship; they do not carry enough fuel for their outboards to cover huge distances. The panga fishermen set out drift lines with big baited hooks. At one end of the line is a flagged buoy, basically a bamboo pole cum float with a small dark rag attached. You have to look sharp to spot them in good time. The panga is often, though not always, tied to the other end. The fishermen sleep while they wait. We had been told by other cruisers to steer for the pangas to get around the lines. We surprise a few dozing fishermen who wake up to see a sailboat has silently approached them so closely while they doze.

Unfortunately there were also drift lines that are not attended and not marked very well: in a couple of cases we drive right over the lines. Fortunately they eventually pass under Vilisar without hooking onto the propeller or the windvane tab. We would not hesitate to cut the lines to free ourselves. But we can not reach them with our boat hook. You can see the lines and hooks clearly in the now pure pacific waters. But too deep to reach. Eventually they slip along the bottom of the keel and we leave them behind.

In one particular case, however, while we are down below, we hear an outboard motor and much whistling and calling. On deck we discover a panga with two slicker-clad fishermen pointing out that we had snagged their line. They want it back. Sure enough, there it is! But how to get it off? We have a couple of scary moments when the panga driver actually comes close enough to tap our windvane steering while trying themselves to recover their line. Eventually, the panga fishermen use a big gaff hook on a weighted line that they drag until they snag the line. With a tug on the grappling arrangement, the line just passes under the vessel and does not have to be cut. We wave the panga fishermen over and throw them a couple of cans of beer. Big smiles all round.

Passing close to another panga, we see the two young guys clubbing a swordfish that they have hooked. It is not dead and is a thrashing menace to the fishermen. That pair of fishermen in fact follow us in their panga and ask us for “comides”, i.e., food. We give them some chopped up pineapple and two cervezas (beers). The driver of this panga is really skilful. He brings his boat up alongside us close enough that I can just hand off the stuff to the be-slickered man in the bows. They look mightily pleased at the beer. Don’t know if getting pineapple was quite what they had in mind.

The skies remain overcast for the first few days until we get away from the influence of the cold Humboldt Current. Then the air and water gradually begin to feel warmer and more tropical. The skies begin to open up more and show us some blue. On the fourth night we get heavy tropical showers and thereafter our nice sailing winds disappear in exchange for weak and fluky gusts.

Last night, after a nearly a whole day of slatting around in nearly no wind at all, the heavy mainsail boom banging away annoyingly and making us nervous, we finally decide to motor through the night. The seas are calm and gentle. In the openings in the clouds we see bright stars and a sliver of the emerging moon. All around us there are squall clouds and it feels humid and mildly threatening; you feel like a thunder storm is coming. Is this the Doldrums already? We are at nearly N 5o now; when I checked the NOAA weather site just before we left, the ITCZ was still hovering over Costa Rica and Western Panama. Maybe this is just a squally area. I hope so. Lister is running smoothly but we would prefer to sail.

We remove the bulkhead door to the engine room so the air-cooled diesel can get lots of breeze. Noisy, of course! And hot! I stick plugs in my ears and eventually I get used to the background noise. It is a damned sight better than the techno music we were bombarded with back in Bahía every weekend until four in the morning! The Navico takes over and we “stand” our watches from below, coming out every ten or fifteen minutes to sweep the horizon. We see a lot of freighters in the first night, which keeps us on our toes. Thereafter only very occasionally though we expect to see many more as we cross the shipping lanes from the Panama Canal.

This morning begins with clearing skies and a wonderful sunrise. It has been months since we have had this. Glorious! It lifts our spirits. There is still no wind whatsoever and we continue to leave the steering to Navico, Lister & Cie. I have to admit that the Navico is really pleasant to use. It makes little squeaking and squawking noises when it pushes or pulls the tiller. But these fade into the background after a while. I was worried about power drain if the engine is not constantly topping up the batteries. But even without the engine running the tiller pilot makes only very small corrections once the course has been established so perhaps it doesn’t in the end use very much electricity at all. Maybe we could also use it when we are under sail. On a sunny day the solar panels would surely supply all the power necessary. At night we might run the batteries down a bit. Will have to test this.

It is now nearly 1000 hr. Time to do our daily 24-hour course readings. We have been making about 5 knots under power since before dark last night. Our best day-to-day (and a new Vilisar record for us) was the first 24 hours when we made 147 Nm under sail.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Thursday, November 08, 2007

Setting the date seems to be the most difficult but the most critical step in starting a voyage. Once that is established you stop making other appointments and focus to make the departure happen. Our original departure date had been set for 30 October. The tides for crossing the bar were the highest of any date remotely possible.

We had even picked an advantageous tide to put Vilisar up on the makeshift grid to inspect and clean her bottom and propeller prior to the trip; we planned out our maintenance (painting especially) and re-rigging work to be finished in time; we notified the local ship’s agent so he could arrange for the Zarpe (ship departure documentation); and we picked a date to travel to Manta to check out of the country with Migración. Soon we were getting excited about leaving now and we checked the weather forecasts daily for our voyage from Ecuador north to Panama. October 30th!

“The best-laid plans of men and mice oftimes gang awry”, to misquote Robbie Burns. Three days before departure, we start the engine to move over to the grid for cleaning. While I stand on the foredeck to pull in the anchor, Kathleen calls from cockpit near the stern that the engine is making strange noises. Irritated, I go below to take a look. Sure enough, there is oil spurting about the engine room and the oil pressure is dropping. I shut down the Lister engine. The silence is unnerving as I stretch in over the engine to assess the damage.

I suspect it is the soldering on the new copper tube for the new oil pressure instrumentation that we had recently installed. I put in a call on the VHF for the electrician. No response! It’s a weekend and Joe may be out of town.

Meanwhile, I see Wacho’s blue Russian stake truck parking ashore near the yacht club. Wacho is an engine mechanic who knows Vilisar because he spent a few days looking over and spray-painting our diesel so that it looks like new. I jump into the dinghy and row in to talk to him. He says he cannot visit us till Monday but will be at the dock and ready to go at nine o’clock.

In the bizarre world of national bureaucracies, if we had not yet checked out with Migración, we would probably now be delayed and have to pay an over-stay fine of $200 each. But, since we did in fact check out yesterday (Friday), basically we are now wetbacks. Probably nobody much cares. Our agent says the authorities only want their paperwork to be correct. What actually happens on the ground, on the other hand, seems to be irrelevant. He will not say anything to the Port Captain for a few days while we assess the situation. Meanwhile, our chance to use the makeshift tidal grid to clean the bottom will have passed by the time Wacho gets any repairs completed, so we shall now have to pay someone to clean the bottom for us.

On Monday, Wacho susses out the problem in short order. It’s not the oil-pressure gauge tubing at all. He reckons instead that a felt oil gasket in our 35-year-old engine has failed. The gasket is probably no longer made but he reckons he can fashion one locally without having to rely on a worldwide internet search for a replacement or a trip to Guayaquil junk yards. The big problem is how to get at the seal: it lies at the back of the engine in front of the flywheel. The engine will have to be pulled to get at it. But how? Wacho is confident about his diagnosis and can easily repair it. But he has never pulled an inboard diesel engine and certainly not on a sailboat at anchor. There is no crane in Bahía so any solution will have to be makeshift. Don’t ya’ just love the sailing life?

We radio Karl on S/V Muk Tuk. He is a very experienced sailor and an expert motor mechanic. He himself has recently pulled his engine to clean under it (believe it or not). He comes down from the anchorage in his dinghy almost immediately and confers with Wacho. No problem! Just drill a three-inch hole in the bridge deck right above the engine and use the mainsail boom to lift the engine off its mounts. Wacho thinks, if he can turn the engine 180 degrees in the engine room, he can work at the back of the engine from the cabin. He immediately starts disconnecting everything from the motor: exhaust, fuel lines, oil lines, starter, electrical lines, fuel pump, etc., etc. He then unbolts the engine from its mounts. Those bolts have surely not been touched since the engine was installed in 1973.

The next day, Tuesday, he shows up with two helpers. Cutting the hole takes some time because the hand drills soak up all our battery power and the second half of drilling through the 2-inch plank has to be done by hand. Once accomplished, however, a come-along is hung from the boom with the hook down through the hole. With one man on deck to operate the come-along, with Wacho inside the engine room to push and shove and one helper in the cabin to help, the 300-pound engine is lifted inch by inch off its bed and, with a lot of grunting and puffing, it is shifted around a half circle and set down again at the entrance to the engine room. Wacho can now sit in comfort at the bottom of the companionway and start taking off the large bits and pieces. Kathy and I move onshore to hostal Coco Bongo to escape the oil and grease.

Wednesday he is back with only one assistant. Within a few hours he has all the very large chunks of metal laid out on a plastic tarp on the cabin sole including the flywheel and it housing. More importantly, he has the oil seal and the bronze fitting that contains it in his greasy hands. He rapidly comes to the conclusion that he can refashion this same fitting locally to accept a modern rubber oil seal. We row ashore and start travelling around town to get this done. The seal costs about $4. The machine shop work on the bronze retaining ring costs about $6. We dash back out to the boat in the dinghy to make sure that everything fits well. Wacho is beaming. “Tomorrow we will have to find gaskets for everything we have removed”, he says. He plans to drive forty minutes up the coast to his home down of Jama. “I’m sure I have the gaskets we need from an old Lister engine we once worked on.”

We are on the 0630 (Wednesday) car ferry across to San Vicente and soon on the bumpy road to Jama. All the roads in this part of Ecuador, by the way, are bumpy. Some roads are straighter than others but they are all poorly engineered and badly overdue for repaving. We shake and rattle along. Arriving at his parents' house, we find his dad, also a motor mechanic, working on a gasoline-driven water pumpo in front of the house with a group of other men watching him. We head upstairs to greet his mother who starts cooking for us. Meanwhile we begin a fruitless search for the gaskets we need. No deal! After a home-cooked breakfast with Wacho’s Mum hovering over us, and after a discussion with his Dad, Wacho announces that we are heading to a gasket-maker in Perdenales.

An hour later we have crossed the equator by car surrounded by a herd of about 150 cows being driven along the Pacific Coast highway by one lone vaquero (cowboy) and have reached Perdenales. The gasket-maker sets right to work to fabricate anew by hand the various old gaskets that Wacho has brought him. I woak around this little provincial market town set on a hill overlooking the Pacific. It is dusty but looks mildly prosperous. Its economy is based upon ranching and fishing and the people in the shops and on the street reflect this. At the engine repair shop next to the gasket-maker –all the work is done on the sidewalk or in the street – the little truck being worked on is carrying a load of piglets in the back. A man rides past hawking a large fresh sea bass that he has hanging from the handlebars of his bicycle. Three hours later we are back in Bahía after a second stop at Wacho’s parents’ house and another meal with his mother.

Thursday Wacho and his two helpers re-assemble the engine. They also swing the block around in the engine room in the opposite direction and remount the whole thing on the mounts. Replacing it in its initial position turns out to be an even tougher job than taking it out. Exhausted for the day, he is nevertheless back the next morning (Friday) to reconnect all the umbilicals. Within two hours that old Lister is purring away as if it had not just open heart surgery and Wacho is beaming with pleasure. I could have kissed his greasy feet!

When I meet Karl of Muk Tuk in town he asks me how it is all going. He’s amazed that everything is completed and that we have not been held up for days waiting for engine parts to be sent from England. He just shakes his head in amazement at Wacho’s ingenuity and skills. “You can thank your lucky stars!” And we do.

So, if you are ever stuck for a mechanic in Bahía or anywhere in the region, get hold of Washington (“Wacho”) Moreira (cellphone no. ) You will definitely not regret it. Almost everyone I met in traveling around with Wacho told me out of his earshot that he is the best there is in the whole province of Manabí. And the most honest too.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Sunday, October 28, 2007

Our excitement has been increasing over the past few weeks as we ready ourselves and Vilisar to depart Ecuador for Western Panama. After months and months of lying off Bahía de Caraquéz in the estuary of the Rio Chone, the tedium of either working on the boat or trying to earn some money on the internet has slowly been replaced by an awareness that we shall soon be starting the engine, pulling up the anchor, and negotiating the tricky harbour bar to gain the Pacific Ocean again. On the one hand of course, our apprehension increases as we commit ourselves to the unknowns of a long voyage again. But it is balanced by the realisation that it is very much time for us to get moving again. Our hearts beat a little faster when we recapture the excitement of our original plan to circumnavigate the globe. After months of work by both us and by local experts – engine mechanics, marine electricians, electronics specialists, carpenters, machinists, welders, canvas workers, sail-makers - we think Vilisar is ready to go.

Voyage planning

As we approach our departure date we start studying navigation charts, pilot charts, Sailing Directions and weather forecasts. It is approximately 500 Nm from Bahía de Caráquez to Boca Chica in Western Panama. The voyaging trick is to catch the winds and waves at the right moment to maximise sailing efficiency and crew comfort. You don’t want to be beating to windward if you don’t really have to.

South of us there is a large, roughly stationary South Pacific high-pressure zone off Chile. Above the equator but never actually moving south of it during the year, the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ, also called The Doldrums) moves farther north in the summer to be situated generally at the southern end of Mexico. Between it and the Chilean high pressure zone, winds are steady and pleasant and predominantly from the SE from April till November. These Trade Winds will blow 10-15 knots and carry you across the South Pacific once you have passed The Galapagos Islands. In closer to the coast of South America, the winds tend to be more southerly and the waves and swells move in a predominantly northerly direction.

Our rhumb line for the voyage is nearly straight north from Ecuador with a little westing added in to get us to Western Panama. For this voyage, in other words, the larger weather picture is still for the moment perfect.

If we were to postpone our departure too long, however, and the ITCZ moved south toward the equator, we might have to push through the generally windless Doldrums. And, if we punched right through the ITCZ, we could well encounter balmy but northerly NE Trade Winds (or, in this case, “Noserlies”) on the other side. From a voyaging point-of-view, this means slow headway as you tack back and forth to windward. Or you give up in frustration and use the engine. We would also have to deal with much rain and local squalls as well.

The weather chart above shows the broad weather picture as it has been this past week. Last year was an El Niño year: the ITCZ moved south early and some sailing vessels encountered somewhat adverse conditions on the way to Central America from Ecuador. This year, however, is turning into a La Niña year, which means that the ITCZ will likely be slower to move south; we might be able to sail the whole thing with following winds and seas. Note, however, that on the chart the Central American end of the ITCZ is anchored just over Western Panama. The other weather charts show the direction of the waves this past week. If you are interested you can read Goggle the “East Pacific Tropical Weather Discussion”, which is disseminated daily on-line by NOAA with forecasts for up to five days ahead.

At present the weather looks set to be co-operating for our departure on Saturday, 10 November, from here in Bahía de Caráquez. The harbour bar is made up of huge sand bars stretching across the river mouth and for miles out into the Pacific and we will not have the benefit of a pilot as we did when we entered the estuary those many months ago. We do have a set of closely-spaced GPS waypoints that have been used by other yachts. If they are wrong, however, you will be on the sand bar pretty quickly with the tide falling, a torrent of water pouring out of the bay and Pacific waves pounding us. Sometimes sailing can be serious stuff! We have plotted in fact two sets of GPS waypoints for the exit, and while they are not exactly the same, they parallel each other closely. We also have the GPS track of our entry last year. The three routes run closely parallel. A good cross-check. But still, we are largely at the mercy of someone else’s (who’s?) navigation aids.

We shall be crossing the bar in mid-afternoon. Since we do not want to travel up the coast during night because of the plethora of fishing nets and drift lines expected, unless the waves are quite large we shall anchor in the “waiting room” to wait for dawn the next morning – in other words, just off the town of Bahía again but just on the other side of the isthmus where Bahía lies and probably less than a mile as the crow flies from where we are now.

Parking for the night after exiting the harbour will allow us to finish any stowing necessary and to make any adjustments to the rig and sails, or the windvane steering, or the engine or …. whatever. If necessary, we could put back into Bahía de Caráquez.

Check out procedures

To leave the country by car or plane, on the one hand, the procedures are fairly simple. Show up at unannounced at the border station or the airport and go through the cha-cha steps: Migración, maybe Aduana, security checks, tickets, etc. in whatever order they occur. Arrive or leave Ecuador by yacht, however, and it gets a lot more complicated. And expensive! First, you have to hire a ship’s agent who does the vessel formalities for you. The formalities are still basically quite simple in Ecuador. Foreign-flagged vessels now of course have to inform (through the agent) the Armada del Ecuador (Ecuadorian Navy) in advance of your route through territorial waters and beyond. They must sanction it but so far this has just been rubber stamping. But a royal pain and very expensive now because of the agent. Eventually the Armada issues a Zarpe, which is an acronym of some sort for an exit permit. A Zarpe means you have left the port in good standing (i.e., you have paid all your bills). You present it at the next port-of-call when you arrive. The whole concept is rather old-fashioned and many countries, including Canada, the EU and the U.S.A., for example, no longer require it. Because using agents was only made mandatory after we arrived here and because we are only doing one leg of the round trip, the local one is only charging us $50 (he normally charges $150 for a round trip into and out of Bahía de Caráquez.) Of course, there are still fees to be paid to the Port Captain as before. But they amount in our case to about $34 (they cover his admin charges and fees for Lights & Buoys and for VHF radio usage in the country).

With your Zarpe in your hot little hand, you take a two-hour ride over to Manta to clear Migración. You pay a little fee (it varies from tourist to tourist for reasons we cannot understand; we were charged $10 each in cash this time and received no receipt). They stamp your passport and you are now “gone”; you have only a limited amount of time to leave the country on your boat. Up until now, Aduana (Customs) has never taken any interest in yachts although there are rumours that they are going to do so.

Altogether then, it will have cost us about $104 in charges to leave the country plus travel costs to Manta.


Fortunately we have already tanked up with diesel fuel because the price is about to rise from $1.50 (delivered to your vessel) to approximately $3.00. We carry about 75 US gallons in two large metal tanks port and starboard of the diesel engine. That amount of fuel adds weight to the stern of the boat. Additionally, we also carry four 5-gallon jugs of fuel lashed on deck to the forward side of the cabin structure at the foot of the mast. Our two 20-pound horizontal propane tanks are nearly completely full at present since, with restaurants being so cheap, we have done so little cooking here in Bahía.

We also carry four back-up jugs of potable water on deck in addition to the two tanks (approx. 60 gallons together) under the berths amidships in the main cabin. We don’t want to risk contaminating our water tanks, so we buy bottled drinking water even though there is piped water in the town. Even the locals don’t drink that, as a rule. We fill the deck jugs only 3/4th full: if we ever have to abandon ship in an emergency, these jugs can be tied together and will float.

After visiting Migración in Manta, we stopped at the large supermarket to provision. Our voyage is only going to be less than a week plus whatever time we want to spend in the islands of Western Panama. We still have some canned goods on board that we need to use up; they’re starting to get corroded on the outside. Other boaters carry six months or more of supplies on board. But we prefer to provision as the need arises. When we travel to the South Pacific, for example, we shall stock up well since French Polynesia is said to be terrifically expensive while Panama is cheap.

A day or two before we leave, we shall visit the local mercado to stock up on fresh items like fruit and vegetables, bread and eggs.

Other preparations

As departure date approaches, we need to clean Vilisar’s bottom and propeller before we leave. It was all done and the bottom freshly painted with anti-fouling just a couple of months ago in August. But we can see that barmacles have been attaching themselves to the hull at the waterline again. I swear those suckers thrive on bottom paint! On Saturday and Sunday, therefore, we plan to use the high tides to lean the boat up against the wall at the beach again, clean her and give the bottom a good inspection again.

Then it’s all about saying goodbye to all our acquaintances locally as well as other cruisers we have gotten to know here. Like Vilisar, many other boats are also getting ready to put out and by the time we leave some three or four yachts will already have left. Sisiutl (our friends Penny and Phil from Seattle) are already in Panama after a fast 3-day passage in their catamaran. Plan B (Gary and Mavis) left a day or so ago headed for Panama and eventually Hawaii. And leaving the same day as us, Bill and Doreen aboard Lanikai out of Oregon will head out of the narrow harbour-bar channel. Soon to follow will be Karl and Alexandra aboard Muk Tuk with their two pre-school boys, and, Alexandra’s parents, Erich and Ericka aboard Timoun. They are buddy-boating to Chile after Karl has largely remodelled, refurbished and re-painted (red) their steel schooner Muk Tuk over the past half year (in addition to doing a super repair job to our mast). Boris and April on Intelichea (Long Beach) are headed for Panama and so are Jan and George on Clair de Lune, Brian and Marilyn on Ikarian (Vancouver, BC), and probably others as well. At this time of the year I can hardly keep everybody’s sailing plans straight. Six weeks from now the anchorage will only be half as full.

We will miss those we are leaving behind. Suzie at hostal Coco Bongo, for example. Though we have not made many close friends in town, by virtue of being anchored at the Bahía Yacht Club, we seem to have become better acquainted locally. We know the shopkeepers and local restaurant operators where we show up regularly. And Tripp Martin at Puerto Amistad and his wife Magi. We have nodding acquaintances with many others our town as well.

We are eager to get going. That’s just part of the cruising life. But we will retain fond memories of our stay here. And, who knows? We might get back here again.

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It is a pretty depressing prospect. Our 35-year-old Lister 3-cylinder, air-cooled, 19½ hp, 2,000 rpm diesel engine looks a mess. There’s no apparent rust, but the paint is blistering and in some places has already disappeared. The exhaust manifold, left as bare metal right from the beginning because of the intense heat it develops, is shedding layers and dropping flakes of metal, large and small, onto the large starter motor just below it. I realize, of course, that something needs to be done. But when you are a novice in engine matters, just trying to figure out the proper steps and the right materials and the appropriate chemicals is somewhat daunting. My naïve questioning of other, more experienced cruisers, only makes public how pathetic my knowledge and skill sets actually are. I know it myself, of course, but I am not eager to expose myself to ridicule and smirks any more than necessary.

Enter Washington Moreira! I have gotten to know him because he operates his speedboat business out of the Bahía Yacht Club where our mast was laid out for repairs this past summer. Without the Quiteños down for beach vacations, there is not that much for him to do. He’s about 40, strongly built, and friendly without being pushy. He drives around town in a small and very distinctive blue stake truck of Russian manufacture. Apparently these Russian trucks were quite common in Ecuador when he was a kid. Anyway, it’s the same age he is and he has restored it. It does look somewhat bizarre – like the body and the chassis don’t actually quite belong together. But it functions just fine. He is practicing his English and I am working on my Spanish. He helps me with one or two little technical problems and has been a great source of local information and contacts to workshops around the area and even as far away as Manta. As it turns out he is by trade actually a motor mechanic, something he learned from his father. So you can see where this is going.

Since his work is sporadic, I ask him if he would like to help me check over the engine and clean it up. Sure! When you are dealing with Ecuadorian craftsmen it is very difficult to get a quote or even to narrow the job down to specifics. Once aboard, Washington is inside the engine room like a monkey and has things sussed out quickly. It needs more than just cleaning; the whole engine should be painted or otherwise we are going to have increasing problems. I think he means painting the engine with a paint brush. But no; he mans spray-painting it. Now this was beyond anything I could have imagined even possible given that the Lister sits inside an enclosed engine room aboard a sailboat at anchor in the Rio Chone.

But over the next few days all the housings and cowlings around the air-cooled engine are removed to be worked on ashore and the basic engine block is exposed down to the valves on top. I am surprised at how small the actual engine block really is. It’s the claddings that make it look so large. He does some testing and poking around. Everything looks good. Very clean inside too. It’s the outside that is the problem.

But, a few days later, we have a gleaming, like-new Lister diesel engine in a smashing dark coffee colour. The work started with a wash-down with diesel fuel and with plenty of elbow grease with a bronze wire brush and scrapers. Then, a wipe down with rags. With the dinghy dangerously low in the water, the next day I row Washington out to Vilisar along with an electric-driven air compressor and a portable gasoline generator borrowed for the day from a friend of Washington’s. We have already been to the paint shop for materials. I am sceptical but Washington is pumped up. Even the day before when he was wedged in behind the engine block and covered in grease, diesel fuel and stained black up to the elbows, he said he loves doing this kind of stuff. He is great about explaining what he is doing and, unlike every other electrician and mechanic that has ever been on the boat, he does not block my view with his derriere. I get to see what is going on too so that I can learn.

After setting up the machinery on deck, he is back inside the enclosed engine room and spraying the block with paint thinner to degrease it and then dry it. He does wear a paper dust mask. But the atmosphere is pretty grim. No problema, nada! After a brief break we are mixing paint and thinner into the spray-painting cup. Back in he goes and starts the actual spray-painting. As before, he is all around the engine, getting at it from every side and angle. There are clouds emitting from the engine room and rising up through the companionway hatch.

A few hours later, looking rather coffee-coloured ourselves, we are rowing the machinery and ourselves back to the dock at the Bahía Yacht Club and loading things into the Russian stake truck. Before driving off, however, Washington gets to work in the club yard to clean up all the metal items that he could remove from the engine. Soon they are painted and laid out to dry.

The final step before re-assembling the engine is a flying trip to Manta in the “Mother Russia” to get new gaskets made. Having grown up in the area as the son of a mechanic, Washington knows where to go straight away. So, we make a beeline for the gasket-maker: nobody carries gaskets for an old Lister although everyone seems to remember these engines with fondness. The man at Columbiano de Empaques near the bus station makes new asbestos gaskets (empaques) using the old rubber ones as models. Altogether he has about a dozen to make, some of them quite small like washers.

Meanwhile we are off to a number of other businesses. We need some hose for the electrical bilge pumps (the old plastic ones were laid too close to the exhaust pipe and of course melted). We also need a series of replacement stainless-steel nuts and bolts to put the bits and pieces back on the engine. We also drop by El Bruho’s (Sñr. Jaime’s) machine shop. This is the biggest such workshop I have seen so far locally. Very clean with lots of advanced Chinese-built lathes and planing and milling machinery. (I have noticed that machine shops are usually tidy and reasonably clean, but welding shops are dirty and cluttered. Why is that?) I need to have a stainless-steel threaded eyebolt cut down into a ring and a 5/16th-inch stainless bolt welded to it so it can be the female eyebolt for the male that I already have. I can’t get what I need in Ecuador and importing it from the USA of Europe way too expensive. Half an hour later I have what I need. The total cost is $3! El Bruho (he is called “The Witch” because he seems to be able to do so many impossible tasks. He does a lot of work for the large tuna-fishing fleet in Manta.)

I have also been looking for petroleum-absorbent pads and bilge cleaner for the boat. Whenever I ask for them and even show pictures of them from the West Marine catalogue, all I get is blank looks all around. Washington swings by Zurito Hardware. Lo, and behold! They have a huge roll of the stuff, 50 metres at least and lying right there in plain view. They almost sell to me the lot for $7.68. that seems pretty cheap to me but I say nothing. Unfortunately, they realise that the price should be $7.68 per metre. But it’s still way under the West Marine price (smaller individual sheets there at about $12 each). A gallon of bilge cleaner costs me under $9. I am already getting back the $10 of gasoline I bought for the trip in “Mother Russia”. Washington even knows a place to each lunch that serves generous portions of good food, is nice to sit in and costs only a dollar each for almuerzos (set lunch). And when we go back to pick up the gaskets before rocketing back to Bahía on the rough and serpentine country roads, they cost me altogether only $10. I am sure that the fact that Washington was with me saved me days of searching and a lot of money. He knows what the prices are and he is not likely to get ripped off like a gringo. Today he spends till lunchtime re-assembling the engine. Man, it looks great!

We have already agreed that he should pull out the old, bronze, Jabsco engine-driven pump and make sure that it works. It seems to be frozen up for lack of use; I normally use the big hand pump mounted in the engine room. Washington promises to take it with him to El Bruho the next time he goes to Manta and he will also pick up the proper tubing for the bilge pumps as well. I installed the automatic electric bilge pumps back in Long Beach. I was worried about leaving the boat unattended when I left for Chicago. Our hull is pretty tight. But you never know and I did not want the hassle of having Vilisar sink at the dock. That happened to two other boats at Shoreline Village Marina while I lived there. The cost to raise the boats again was astronomical! And I don’t mean just high! Astromonical! The big hand pump works fine. But you have to be on board. The same applies to the high-capacity engine-driven bilge pump. They are going to be fine when we are at sea.

A day later Wacho (this is his local nickname; he now refers to me as Mi Gringito which I guess means he has more or less adopted me) is waiting at the dock when I take Kathleen ashore to go to the cyber-café. He decided to inspect the jabsco pump rather than take it to El Bruho in Manta. The impeller is like new (it was, too, six years ago) but the central stainless steel shaft is badly pitted. He tells me to get into Mother Russia and off we go. We catch up with Joselito in Leonidas Plaza, the suburb of Bahía, where he is eating desayunos (big breakfast) as a sidewalk eatery. Yes, he will be along in a few minutes on his bike: he can do the job for $40. We wind our way into unpaved back streets until we come through a back lane to a house surrounded by fruit trees (bananas, nona, mango and maraacuya) and a yard enclosed behind the standard split-bamboo fence. We sit down on the standard white plastic armchairs and wait. The family lives upstairs (traditional housing on the coast is a raised platform on p8nded-in wooden beams with lumber or, more commonly, split-bamboo siding. There was a shady area beneath the house for hammocks, workshops, animals, etc. Now the houses are frequently built on rammed-in concrete posts and concrete platforms with brick or concrete block walls. But people still live upstairs and use the space for something else down below. Under this house was Joselito’s machine shop. As usual, this machine shop is clean and tidy. Nothing lying loose on the floor to trip you up, the floor itself swept clean, the tools neatly arranged within working reach of the old Rumanian-built metal lathe. Nearby stands a Chinese drill press. That’s it for machinery.

Joselito arrives and starts to set things up. He doesn’t have a machine that can cut the slots in the stainless steel shaft. But he can makeshift it using the lather and some drill bits. While he works he alternately chats with us or sings to himself. He is very fastidious about his work, working with the tips of his long fingers and measuring each step carefully several times before starting. Clearly Joselito likes the precision aspects of his work with metals. Exactly what one looks for in machinists and brain surgeons, I should think. Ninety minutes later we have all caught up with the latest local gossip, discussed the upcoming elections on Sunday for the constitutional assembly (both these guys are definitely going to vote for PAIS, Raphael Correa’s new-deal party, no doubt about it) and the new stainless steel shaft is lying in my hand.

Wacho asks how much to free up the hand-cranking armature from the Lister. $8. Do it. We sit down again. This is not so much precision work as hammering and loosening the shaft from within its metal sleeve. Joselito calls his teenage son to come and help. This is tough. Probably hasn’t been lubricated in years. Eventually they use the blow torch to heat the shaft and finally get it all apart. Two hours later we are leaving with our two projects. It’s lunchtime and we drop into Wacho’s favourite restaurant for a huge lunch that costs a dollar each. Over the meal he says that work would have costs $150 at El Bruho’s in Manta and we have also saved ourselves the trip.

The textile “chimney” that carries the heat from the engine to the deck has been repaired so many times now with whipping twine that it is looking rather strange. We drive around to various seamstresses to see if one of them can make a new one. Maybe by Friday if they can find the material at the market.
Otherwise we shall just put the old one back in place.

So now we have this fantastic new engine aboard Vilisar. I keep shining a bright light over the engine room just to enjoy the sight of this glistening coffee-coloured beauty. The engine even sounds better!

If you ever come to Bahía de Caráquez and need engine work, get in touch with Washington Moreira. He’s not much on email but he does have a yahoo account ( Better to call him on his cellphone at (09) …… Or, if you see him driving around in “Mother Russia”, the blue stake truck, just flag him down.