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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, viernes, 26 de septiembre de 2008

As I write we have just finished a hot lunch aboard Vilisar and are listening to chamber music on our new $20 radio/cd player. What bliss!

As I look around the cabin I realise that we have actually made some progress. The decks, the main cabin and the forepeak have been cleaned, the bare wood oiled, the 6 pieces and 300 lbs of luggage have been rowed out to the boat, unpacked and largely stowed away. Kathleen has even managed to get into the dinghy to scrub the grey crud off the topside planking. Our now rather large inventory of sails has been sorted and decisions made about getting rid of the tired, old, patched ones that have been superseded by our fetching new suit of tanbark sails. At present we have eleven sails if you include the storm sails. We want to cut that number in half.

It is really nice to be able to hear good music again; in a rare fit of deck-scrubbing activity back in Panamá last year, I accidentally splashed saltwater over the old boom box. (This eventuality, by the way, is not even mentioned in the operating instructions, but, if you are contemplating it, don’t. In fact, my advice is not even to scrub the decks for quite a while in case you damage your boom-box.) While in the States, we also acquired an MP3 player; as soon as we can figure how it works we can copy our CDs before they deteriorate completely in the salt air environment. Getting rid of the CDs will also open up a bit of shelf and drawer space, always a consideration on a boat.

We have each even managed to forget that it is dangerous to be outside without a hat or a shirt, and have each become sunburned at least once. During the dry season here the skies are grey with a high marine haze. But you can still quickly get a burn here just fifty miles south of the equator.

We have been re-acquainting ourselves with old cruising friends and meeting new ones from the U.S.A., Canada and Europe. While we are still a long way up the river from Puerto Amistad, I have gotten used to the rowing and learned again to take advantage of tides and currents. An anchoring spot much closer may open up this weekend.

Since our bank accounts are empty, we shall have to wait to get started on replacing our onboard fuel tanks and boat batteries. But, we are living just fine. Wacho got our batteries charged up enough to start the engine so we can use the engine alternator on a daily basis. The solar panels don’t add much by way of input given these grey skies. Wacho also replaced the corroded ground wire, which had been giving us trouble. Otherwise, he says, the engine sounds great; rather like a Harley Davidson with its straight-pipe inboard exhaust system. The dinghy’s bottom-fibreglass and paint were rejuvenated while we were away, so that is one less job. About mid-October the tides will be right for us to go up on the makeshift grid at the Club de Yate to paint the bottom with red anti-fouling paint and to repaint the white topsides. The tropical sun has not done the white paint on the decks and coach roof any good; as usual the paint looks chalky and dry; I will touch up the cracks along the plank joins for the time being; one of the advantages of using white paint is that touch-ups are easier. One of the disadvantages of cedar decks is that the planking swells and shrinks with the elements. At some point I shall need to apply a couple of coats of Cetol to the mast and to paint the spreaders white. That will be a good opportunity to replace the masthead tri-light. In other words, the usual array of boat-maintenance jobs.

We are still not sure how to proceed with the fuel-tank issue. Several people have recommended using a phosphoric acid solution to clean out them out. There are no inspection ports to allow us to get inside to look, clean and perhaps coat them with something (West System?) to prevent rusting in the future. The alternative is to have new steel ones fabricated in Manta. We already have one tip where not to have them made: S/V “Nine of Cups”, another cruising boat, had two or three new tanks made at Galvinazado del Pacifico; apparently they were never pressure-tested and there were over thirty large leaks (i.e., big enough to cause a whistle under pressure) and small leaks (i.e., evidenced by soapy bubbles) when they were delivered. David, the skipper, repaired the holes with JB and then put two coats of West system on the insides (he recommended looking at West System’s website for how-to information). “Wacho” Moreiera says he has an excellent welder here locally. We will also be getting local prices by doing that instead of a “gringo price”. Alles mit der Ruhe!

We talked briefly yesterday to Dominique and May, a French cruising couple with two small boys. Their departure has been delayed because the engine part that had been shipped to them from Metropolitan France has been stalled in Customs in Quayaquil for over two weeks. In desperation, Dominique took the bus to Guayaquil and picked it up himself. No problems at all. But why had they delayed it so long? So now they are leaving Saturday for Isles des Marquises in French Polynesia. They are emulating our initial cruising plan of waiting out the cyclone season there, so we were a little saddened that we shall be left behind. Of course, being French, they have no visa problems: they can stay a year without a problem. But they too were of the opinion that anybody could sail there in the off-season and not have any real hassle. Anyway, we shall now stay here to get the fuel tanks taken care of.

First Presidential Debate

Tonight is the first of the Presidential ‘debates’ in the U.S.A. We are hoping that Puerto Amistad will be able to receive it by cable TV. It takes place at “Ole Miss” University in Oxford, Mississippi, where our daughter, Antonia, is a sophomore in International Relations & Political Science. She will be working with the debate’s organisators. Maybe we shall get a peek of her.

There was momentary gefluffel this week as to whether Senator John McCain would even take part. He argued that the debate should be postponed until the financial-meltdown crisis has been resolved. Since he admits he doesn’t know much about these matters, sceptics might think he simply wanted to avoid discussing economics and finance. A solution has been hatched in DC, so the debate goes on with both candidates.

McCain’s credentials as a can-do, pragmatic senator are a little in doubt at best. Although Democrats (Clinton et alia) must share a lot of the blame from the 90s; it was after all Obama’s economic advisor and likely senior Obama executive if he wins, Robert Rubin, who led one of the biggest de-regulation binges in 1999. But de-regulation and less government have been Republican planks for decades. Reagan and The Bushes assiduously preached de-regulation in all areas of economic life from stock markets to mortgage lending, from labour safety to meat/food inspections. Another banking and stock-exchange crisis (these are not at all unfamiliar) has landed the country in a mess. But it has surely just been a race to see which one of these ‘unfettered markets’ would be the first to poison the body politic. There has always been an implied government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Fanny Mac, for example, even after they were ‘privatised’, and that there has always been implied bail-outs for crony capitalists, if not by the Treasury than by the Federal Reserve, if not by the Administration than by the Congress, if not by the Feds than by the States. In this as in so many other fields, The Bush II administration, with which John McCain has been closely associated, has been about as hypocritical as they come. McCain was always part of the “too much government” gang. How can he or his party cohorts now convince voters that they are just the chaps to fix everything? Not even Caribou Barbie’s smart-arse speechifying can cover up this one.

Making the best of a bad situation however, these little people will now at least have the satisfaction of having sabotaged any future (Democratic?) government’s efforts to repair the country’s physical infra-structure (highways, bridges, etc.), improve the schools or introduce comprehensive healthcare: the land is seriously mortgaged now for decades. Was it not Bush II who, when he could get no general political support for dismantling hated elder-healthcare systems altogether, then planted a time-bomb in the form of a “comprehensive drug plan for the elderly” that allows the Republican’s pharma-clientele to charge whatever they want for drugs? Medicare and Medicaid will collapse of their own weight in about ten years, i.e., long after (it is devoutly to be hoped) Republicans have been returned skulking to their political tents, there to consider End Times, no doubt, and formulate stab-in-the-back theories aimed at a Democratic president. The $700 billion rescue package for the banks will have to be based upon borrowed money since the cupboard has been bare for years now. The rescue package is therefore just another time bomb and a financial measure of all the programmes that will have to be foregone.

The neo-conservatives’ policies seem always to have been formulated in a Texas roadhouse by the nuke ém and hang ém school of political thought. None of the policies have ever been reality based and, whether economics or foreign policy, they don’t work in practice. Because they are so simplistic, however, they are perfect for Caribboo Barbie’s speeches and Rush Limbaugh’s radio rants.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, Sunday, 28 September 2008

While suturing a cut on the hand of a 75 year old rancher who's hand was caught in the gate while working cattle, the doctor struck up a conversation with the old man. Eventually the topic got around to Palin and her bid.

The old rancher said, "Well, ya know, Palin is a 'Post Turtle'".

Not being familiar with the term, the doctor asked him what a 'post turtle' was.

The old rancher said, "When you're driving down a country road you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top - that's a 'post turtle".

The old rancher saw the puzzled look on the doctor's face so he continued to explain. "You know she didn't get up there by herself, she doesn't belong up there, and she doesn't know what to do while she's up there, and you just wonder what kind of dummy put her up there to begin with".

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hurricane IKE led to a weeklong delay in our arrival back in Ecuador. Other than that, however, the trip was largely uneventful. The check-in staff at Baltimore-Washington International airport, on the other hand, said that, as a Canadian, I had to have a return ticket to enter Ecuador. No ifs, ands or buts! I had to buy a $462, one-way ticket from Guayaquil to Panamá before I would be permitted to board the plane.

We finally landed at Guayaquil late at night on Friday, 12th September, cleared customs with all of our purchased boat stuff and were given 90-day tourist visas. There are rumours around that Migración in Manta will not grant any more 90-day extensions, but we’ll cross that bridge went we come to it. After a night in one of Ecuador’s typical low-end flophouses (naked 40-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling, ancient toilet fixtures and cold shower; no lift and no place to leave the 300-pounds of luggage in six bags with the concierge; it all had to be humped up two flights of stairs and back down in the morning. Ah,well! We could always hit the Intercontinental Hotel the next time, I suppose.

Did I mention that Ecuadorian Migración made no mention of me, a Canadian, requiring a return ticket before being allowed into this country? Did I mention that? We spend Saturday morning at the COPA Airlines’ city office near the Malecón to get this airline ticket refunded thereby making our credit card solvent once again, and then walking the downtown streets and paying a visit to the iguanas at Park Bolívar.

About one o’clock we packed a cab and headed out to the Terminal Terrestre with our entire luggage crammed into the taxi. It is a basic rule of taxi-usage in Ecuador that the driver will under almost no circumstances whatsoever help you to put your the luggage into or take it out of the car. I therefore stand there expectantly waiting until I win or lose this silent psychological duel. If by some rare chance the driver gets impatient to cadge his next fare and actually gets out of the car to begin unloading, I pitch in and help and give him a small tip (tips are rare with taxi drivers because there are no metres and the fares are always flat rates).

We wait around for ninety minutes until the Reina del Camino (Queen of the Road) ejecutivo-class bus pulls up to the platform on the second floor of the brand new Terminal building. We pull out at 1450, i.e., some twenty minutes late targeted to arrive in Bahía de Caráquez at 2000. We’ll see. This is the first time we have had shotgun seats behind the driver, i.e., where we can watch the road ahead. Passengers are as a rule kept separated from the driver and his helper by a glass wall that is also usually blackout with curtains. Being able to watch the road ahead allows you to read the road-signs so you have a rough idea of where you are. On the other hand, looking forward in an Ecuadorian long-distance bus becomes a mixed blessing when the driver is overtaking long, freight-hauling lorries or disabled country trucks piled high plantains and just barely off the narrow, winding highway. The highway network in this country is quite undeveloped. They are working on it now that the economy is improving somewhat. But so far the only improvements seem to be around the cities where palm-lined, multi-lane roads exist. Bahía is reached after 5½ hours of slow, winding and often rutted and pitted roads. But I have to admit that we do arrive right at 2000 and find a taxi to take us (and our bags) to Hostal Coco Bongo, which is owned and run by our Australian friend, Suzie. You can visit her yourself at .

Catching up

Since until we locate Washington (“Wacho”) we have no dinghy to get back out to Vilisar; he has had at his place for repainting and fibreglass repairs, we enjoy a good Saturday-nights sleep and a slow start on Sunday. This gives us time to chat with Suzie and get the latest gossip, wander up the river bank to take a look at Vilisar anchored out in the estuary. Because of the bridge-building construction activities, Vilisar was moved in our absence and re-anchored quite a way farther upriver and therefore farther away from the dinghy-docking facility at Puerto Amistad. In fact, we are now closer to the neighbouring village of Leonidas Plaza and need to row about a mile to land. Hmmm! I expect my shoulders will get fit again! But it’s a long way if you have to battle the currents.

Who says that nothing ever happens in Bahía? All the other personal gossip pales by comparison to the story that Suzie told us. We were struck silent by this story. Across the river in San Vincente and therefore, I suppose, not technically part of Bahía de Caráquez itself, two men robbed and shot dead a local shopkeeper who was on the way to the bank with a sum of money. The bandits took off but were overtaken by locals who were so incensed that they tied the two men, one of them for certain a Columbian, behind a moto-taxi or- taxis (a three-wheeled motor-cycle used as local taxis) and dragged them back to the main square. There, dead or alive, they were doused with kerosene and set ablaze. Anyone who tried to stop this lynching was threatened with similar consequences. The two bodies were burned beyond identification. The police decided not to intervene. Who says nothing ever happens in Bahia?

Last year there were labour disputes between the Pedi cab operators and the newly introduced moto-taxis, the latter taking business away from the former. Nerves wore thin and there were pitched battles in the street. Riot police were called in from nearby Manta to suppress the violence. Dressed in brand-new-looking blue combat clothing and riding in German or Brazilian-built armoured vehicles, they were a presence around town for a few weeks. During one of the confrontations with police, a triciclero was shot dead. In retribution, rioters burned the Municipio (town hall) with all its documentation and files. Again this took place in San Vincente so maybe those guys have a lower blood-boiling temperature. But still, who says nothing ever happens in Bahía?

Trouble in paradise

There has been a lot of gossip about Puerto Amistad in the online chat groups, about various turf battles that have plagued this otherwise peaceful little spot (did I say peaceful? Viz above.) Some people have been declared person non grata at Puerto Amistad and there are various resentments floating around. At one point only a year or so ago, you could easily enter Bahía by boat, check in with the Port Captain and anchor anywhere you liked. Last year the Admirante de Costa (Admiral of the Coast, however, decided to enforce an old rule that all foreign-flagged ships need to have an agent to enter or leave each and every Ecuadorian harbour. This rule had in the past been ignored for yachts and why it should suddenly become a prerequisite is a puzzle since the wording of the law specifically applies to commercial vessels. An agent was costing yachties between $150 and $200 for a round trip into and out of a harbour so cruising from one harbour to another became prohibitively expensive. Other rules suddenly applied to cruisers cut them off from replenishing fuel when they arrived in Ecuador. After a lot of hassle, the marina operators were finally authorised/permitted to act as agents to clear foreign yachts in and out.

The agent in Bahía de Caráquez was/is Tripp Martin, owner/operator of Puerto Amistad. At first he cleared everybody in or out including those who were either headed up the river to Sayananda, a small, cheaper and rather remote anchorage several miles out of town, or to the local Club de Yate. This was a reasonable attitude since Sayananda’s days as an anchorage are in any case limited: once the new bridge is completed next year cruising sailboats will not be able to pass under it (strangely, the bridge is being constructed with no swing or lift element, so the whole upper estuary will be cut off from any future marine-related economic development). The Club de Yate is a local joke since they have no sailing members and the club is used basically as an events place. The disco din there on the weekends is loud enough to lift the paint from your hull if you are anchored or docked anywhere near.

At some point however, Puerto Amistad decided no longer to clear in boaters who were not planning to stay at the marina. And then suddenly the Port Captain ruled that boats would no longer be allowed to travel up to Sayananda at all. This caused a hue and cry by cruisers who had arrived in Bahia with reservations at Sayananda and the online cruiser chat groups got to be pretty hot reading for a while. Frustrations led to angry charges and counter-charges, name-calling, even to bannings from Puerto Amistad and a cooling of relationships and bad vibes all round. Too bad! Not as bad as a lynching of course, but again, who says nothing ever happens in Bahía?

Back on board

The good news is that we are finally back on board. Everything is pretty grungy after so many months and, tired after the long trip back and months of lethargy, we were initially depressed at the work ahead of us. But, we pitched in, started cleaning and then moving our 300 pounds of baggage aboard. Bilge water had risen to just under the cabin sole and the batteries, for some strange reasons, were totally dead. We fetched Wacho, who took the starting battery ashore to be given a quick charge. Then we ran the engine for four or five hours to charge the house batteries. By the next morning however, the house batteries had discharged again, so I guess we are going to have to buy new ones. Add these costs to the new mattresses we want, the ever-more-expensive paint we will need next month to go on the grid for bottom painting. But, are we downhearted? Never!

Wow! A lynching! Can't get over it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, Tuesday, 22 September 2008

Several major factors have fuelled the de-regulation of banking across the industrialised world. First, by the time Reagan arrived as president of the U.S.A., the post-WWII (re-)construction boom was largely over; businesses were no longer investing in new capacity. As a result big business was becoming increasingly liquid. Bank commercial loans to businesses dropped proportionately and bank lending margins tanked. Companies, on the other hand, were looking for a place to earn money on their cash.

Second, following the formation of OPEC, the oil-producing countries were earning seriously-enormous amounts of cash, which needed a safe place to park and, which had to earn a good return. The deposit-taking banks were initially overwhelmed by this flow of money, the more so since they were running out of profitable lending activities.

Third, funded pension funds in many industrialised countries had also by the last quarter of the 20th Century become huge pools of money in search of a return.

Fourth, investment banks had found ways of brokering and trading multifarious flows of money, which as a consequence by-passed lending banks altogether. “Debt instruments” (long-term bonds but also short-term and eventually medium-term notes issued by all manner and classes of credit risks including ‘junk’ class issuers) could be issued by any borrower with a rating, a business plan and the assistance (for a fee) of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers or some other similar investment or merchant bank. The newly-issued (primary) notes or those in secondary trading markets could be directed to institutional (e.g. insurance companies, mutual funds, pension funds) or private investors. The clever boots at the investment banking powerhouses went on to develop, first, trading pits for all of these instruments and, later, an astonishing array of completely new financial instruments, which purported to benefit issuers and investors alike, certainly benefited investment bankers hugely and even purported to be useful financial tools for cash-holders and investors. As mentioned, they were huge money-makers for the investment banks. The impact of such novelties was seldom grasped by regulatory authorities until there had been a meltdown or near-meltdown. And there were several such in the period after Reagan took office.

The banks respond

The commercial banks responded in several rational and parallel ways. First came the drive to diversify into and/or expand into still-very-profitable retail banking, i.e., banking activities for the ordinary individual customer. The reader will have witnessed this trend first hand over the last thirty years in the form of the increasing prevalence of ATMs, plenty of advertising for your banking business, issuing drives for new credit cards, internet banking and the like. These retail banking activities were hugely profitable and successful, but they require a level of scale that is only achievable with the broad geographical presence that old-time restrictive banking laws inhibited, designed as they were to protect small-town banks. One after one, these barriers were struck down or removed by business-friendly administrations at state and national levels (the first steps to de-regulation). This went largely unnoticed by the voters and taxpayers. A giant consolidation phase was as a result set in motion, however: small banks were merged or acquired and nationwide banking became the norm. Even huge state-wide banks like Bank of America have found themselves acquired and managed from a headquarters in North Carolina, surely about as far away from the big money centres like New York, Chicago or San Francisco as one could imagine.

In a second response, money-centre banks like Chase, Morgan, Bank of America and Citibank began to lobby heavily to be permitted to enter other financial activities, most notably insurance and investment banking, which latter sector had been infringing on their corporate business for years in the form of directly-issued financial obligations and, later, sexy financial instruments (see above). The lobbying led to the end of the Glass-Steagall Act and the construction of “Universalbanken” (retail and corporate lending as well as securities activities) along German lines - but of course, without the ‘stuffy’ and ‘heavy-handed’ German regulatory system.

Third, all of this took place to a background of economic thinking which was increasingly opposed to any government regulation whatsoever under the premise that all markets are self-regulating and any government ínterference’ is ipso facto bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for the individual and bad for society as a whole. The demise of the Glass Steagall Act was only a small step in the great scope of radical libertarian economic and political thinking that has left large parts of the economy with about as much regulation as a harbour fish market. ‘Unfettered markets’ became an article of faith that was to be sorely tested several times in the last forty years but has never lost its high priests, idols and acolytes. Despite evidence to the contrary therefore, ‘unfettered markets’ remains the dominant philosophy.

It should only take a few minutes, however, to recall major meltdowns of self-regulating markets. They have been frequent and have always caught the regulators, to the degree they still existed, by surprise. One of the most notorious was the indexed, computer-driven sell-off in October 1987 (Black Monday). This wiped out investor values and required the regulatory agencies to step in to close markets, supply the ‘players’ with plenty of liquidity and generally pull their nuts out of the fire.

Here’s another one you may recall: the Resolution Trust of the 1980s. Conservative savings & loan societies (‘thrifts’) successfully pleaded to be de-regulated so they could make more aggressive loans, especially in real estate. Mis-managed by their executives, it led to a real estate bubble and the collapse of large numbers of thrifts, the bill for which was however picked up in the trillions by the taxpayer, who remain even today and despite ‘unfettered market’ theologies the ultimate cleaner-upper. Since they are largely ignorant of economics and finance beyond simple chamber-maid calculations, most politicians are quick to sweep such disasters under the carpet. Conveniently the taxpayer only notices it in increments or in popular programmes that are no longer funded or even proposed.

Financial train wrecks

Eventually, the heavy hand of government regulation was removed. As globalisation proceeded apace there was nothing left but an orthodox belief that markets would always by their very nature avoid financial train wrecks. There was little discussion of just who or how many would be drowned before the financial ship bobbed up again or even, truth be told, if at all the ship could in fact come right-side-up on its own. Whenever it came to the crunch, the prospect that it would not was too much to contemplate and repeatedly, government has stepped in to protect bankers and “stabilise the system”. Since it (i.e., the government as the agent of the taxpayer) has long since stopped inspecting and licensing in any meaningful way, the taxpayer it now appears is always on the hook when there is a meltdown but his representatives have long ago removed any protective measures (auditing and licensing, for example). Profits are privatised in good times and losses nationalised in bad. Everyone of course tries this on in a free-for-all economy: the farmers, the miners, the hurricane victims, etc. But there issues are unlikely to knobble the whole economic and financial system.

Cosmic joke

It is a cruel and sick joke on us all however to see free-market priests like Fed Chairman Burnanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson so swiftly liquidating the till now strongly reiterated belief that government interference is in and of itself always bad.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Catonsville, MD, 15 September 2008

I have been keeping a journal of our life aboard Vilisar ever since we moved aboard in August of 2001. It is fun to look back and recall the delights and horrors of various voyages we have made. This is the message we sent to family and friends when we arrived safely at Sausalito, CA, after almost exactly one week at sea down the Oregon coast.

Sausalito, California, Monday, August 25, 2003

As you can see, we made it. We motored in under the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny and windless Sunday afternoon (August 24) about 15.00 and were tied to a marina dock in Richardson Bay, Sausalito, California, by about 16.00. The voyage had taken exactly one week. On board were Hank Hazen of Port Townsend, WA, Bob Hale of Comox, BC, Kathleen and I.

We left Neah Bay late afternoon last Sunday - so therefore both beginning and ending the voyage under power - and hit fog immediately. This was somewhat worrisome because the shipping traffic at the mouth of Juan de Fuca is normally quite heavy. But within a couple of hours we had motored on a glassy windless sea out of the fog and, as the night fell, a half-moon rose in the blue-black sky and, to the north over Vancouver Island faint traces of aurora borealis were visible. After setting watches of two hours on and six hours off, we motored-sailed generally WSW through the calm and starry night and the lively phosphorescent seas.

During the night we ran into occasional fog again and clouds arrived to obscure the firmament. At mid-morning of the next day (25 August) we cut the engine and continued under main and staysail with winds from the west freshening to 15-20 Kn . There were also long sea-swells from the northwest. When we reached the 126th meridian about noon we turned Vilisar due south. We were about 130 Nm off the Washington coast and we intended to “sail the meridian” as far south as N 40°. This would give stormy Cape Mendocino, California, a wide berth before turning roughly SE to angle in towards San Francisco.

Although the winds and the waves are as a rule stronger offshore, there is normally also much less shipping. Closer to the coast one worries about being blown onto a lea shore, getting caught up in crab lines or colliding in the fog with a coastal tug or barge. Also the water is much warmer offshore in the summer. Nearer shore it is colder thanks to the south-bearing Alaska Current. When the warm Pacific air of late summer flows over the colder coastal water, there’s fog all along the coast. To our pleasant surprise, the air and the water were both noticeably much warmer even at night when we were offshore.

By 20.00 the first day, Sunday, we handed the mainsail and ran under staysail alone. We were still making about 5 knots – about what we were making under power. Farther along, both the second and the third night were very “blowy” and the waves and swells had built considerably. The British refer to this as “boisterous”. We decided therefore to heave to on both nights, it being overcast and very dark. The compass light also was too faint to be useful and the waves too big to keep the boat on an even keel. We were thrown around a lot during the second night because we hove to using our staysail. It was the only sail we were flying as night fell. But it could not be backed. One crewman was certain that it would not have to be backed to be effective, nor would we need a reefed-in mainsail. We followed his advice and it did work to a degree. But we were headed off the wind instead of up into the wind and we were also heeled way over to starboard and taking uncomfortable slapping waves on Vilisar's port belly all night. If I could avoid it I did not want to take crew on deck at night in the poor weather and flying salt spray to change the sail arrangement. So we put up with it once we realised that Vilisar was not actually being threatened seriously. With his 250 pounds the crewman in question got the worst of it because he was sleeping to windward (steeply up) and therefore despite the lee-cloths that we had rigged had he to hang all night by his fingernails to keep from landing on the cabin sole (steeply down). The compass light and the lee clothes will need attending too now that we are arrived in San Francisco.

The next night (our third night out) we hove to once again in strong winds and very big seas. We did so by dousing the staysail and hoisting and backing the Yankee. Those two steps just at dusk, however, were exhausting and not much better. We had to start the engine and bring the vessel up into the wind. If it was bumpy going down wind, it became seriously exciting as we headed back into the waves and wind, the deck pitching like crazy in the somewhat confused seas, the winds very strong. Hank and I were working together on the foredeck and we were wet and tired when we finally finished. Bob and Kathy were in the cockpit. But when we were finished and properly hove to, we could all go below, have a beer and turn in. Hove to like this, Vilisar continued to point off the wind. But she did not heel so much and did not take the same discomfiting waves the way she had the night previously as she heeled and showed her bottom to the waves. Once again we drifted about 25 Nm to leeward - i.e. toward San Francisco during each of those two nights. Down below things were much calmer.

But that first stormy night was a little scary. Kathy said she repeated the 23rd Psalm all night to calm herself. I tried instead to recall the cable-laying-ship's captain in Victoria who said he wanted to hear about it first if we ever decided to sell Vilisar. I was pondering if I still had his phone number. In the forecastle, where Kathy and I were sleeping, every thumping wave threw us together and the spare sails were thrown on top of us for good measure. The next morning everything above deck was covered in drying salt spray. Belowdecks, everything was damp and soggy from spray and salt-water drips that had found their way below through some tiny crack or space. The excellence of Kathy’s pre-departure stowing was evident; no food, books or drawer contents came loose. Nevertheless the cabin was a mess with soggy bedding and foulweather kit and boots. We were all uncomfortable after a rough and largely sleepless night.

All our sailing in the first few days was done with the staysail alone and sometimes we were doing over 7 knots by the GPS down waves though our average over the period was closer to 5 knots. So you can imagine the wave heights. They were not perhaps as large as those we had seen in the Queen Charlottes. But they had plenty of punch and the wind waves were a little at cross-purposes with the general direction of the Pacific swells and therefore unpredictable. When the windwaves and seas swells came together Vilisar would be swept up to a height that allowed us to see to the far-distant horizon. After dropping back a minute later to a medium position where windwaves and swells were distinct from each other, we would bump along for a while and then suddenly be dropped into a deep valley where the surrounding waves seemed to be as high as the mast. Kathy turned out to be the best and most sensitive helmsman. Down below we could always tell when she had taken the tiller because we were not bounced about so much.

The clouds began to thin and blue patches appeared on Wednesday. Although we still did not hang about on deck the weather cheered us and one was inclined perhaps to go on watch early or linger after the new helmsman took over just to chat and get out of the confining cabin.

But it was not until Thursday morning, i.e., into our fifth day at sea, that we could use the galley stove. Up until then we had been surviving on chocolate bars, dried and fresh fruit, cookies, saltines along with diet colas, beer or water. Hank and Bob were in the cockpit when to their amazement and joy I handed them up cups of hot coffee. It had been a major challenge to avoid being scalded in turbulent conditions that, aboard an airliner, would long hence have had the captain ordering the cabin crew to stop serving, sit down and fasten seat belts. The large stew I had made prior to departure stood untouched in its pressure cooker atop the stove. I had filled the pot far too full and I could therefore not take the lid off without having meat, vegetables and broth slopping over the stove. Our first cooked meal, scrambled eggs, came on Friday morning, on our sixth day at sea. It came as manna from heaven. Eventually the stew got eaten.

Though the seas at first remained quite disturbed, the storm, if that was what it was, had passed through by Thursday morning and we had bright sunshine from then till we reached San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. We tried getting up more sail, but eventually the wind abandoned us completely and we were reduced to motorsailing. On Friday morning we temporarily picked up better winds and for a while were jollying along at 7 knots, this time over glassy seas. But the winds turned light and fluky and finally died completely on Saturday leaving us to complete the rest of the trip under power. By late Friday evening we had reached N 40°. We altered course from due south to ESE aiming for the Golden Gate past Point Reynes light still over one hundred sea miles away.

Oh yes! We did have our Saye's Rig windvane steering mounted. But, when we had tried it out in Port Townsend for the first time, we discovered that we could not motor with the tab down. And taking the tab up or inserting it for use meant climbing out on the back of the double-ender, hopping around over a moving tiller while simultaneously trying to stick the tab down through the "trombone arm" attached to the rudder at water level and hanging on for dear life. This was more than anyone aboard wanted to attempt out at sea with 3 or 4-metre following seas. The upshot was that we did not use the self-steering even once on this voyage.

Fortunately for our confidence, we had had our rigging checked and tuned by Brian Toss before we left Port Townsend. He seemed to enjoy working on our traditional rig and kept making loving comments about things on the boat. "But I do have two pieces of bad news for you," he said. "First, you will have to replace the whole rigging before it gets to be 100 years old. Till then it’s just fine. Plenty stout. Second it’s just a little loose and needs tuning." Which he did.

Fortunately too, we had four of us aboard for the voyage to San Francisco. Bob came from Comox, BC, and had crewed on a racing yacht to Hawaii. Hank came from New England originally and has been sailing for years both there and in the Pacific Northwest on his own wooden gaff-rigger, Simplicity. But he had never been offshore and wanted to get that experience. In addition, he needed to keep his USCG papers current. They were both fun to have aboard, and, since we had to steer by hand the whole time, it was surely beneficial to have four helmsmen, meaning that we could each have 6 hours off after 2 hours at the helm.

Of course, after the first 24 hours and as we got to be about 130 nautical miles offshore, the winds had picked up strongly and, with the motion of the boat, there was nothing to do off watch but stay in one’s berth. Hank was seasick at first. But after a pill and a good sleep on our third night out (our second night hove to), he and everyone else felt better.

It was clear that we would have to modify our mainsail reefing system. On the Vilisar, when the main is hoisted to the masthead, it pulls the boom up a bronze slide. To tighten the luff when going to windward, a small tackle is used to stretch the sail down and tighten the luff. But when reefing, the boom drops again to the bottom of the slide and you have to struggle to set the reef. The reefing lines to pull down the leach of the sail do not seem strong enough or even long enough either.

Towards the end of the week the winds became benign, the sun shone more steadily, we got up more sail, we could start cooking the odd meal without being scalded and we all revised our negative views about the advisability of going to sea in small boats. The crewmen were good fun and did not complain that the windvane steering could not be used. After the high winds and waves far out to sea, once we began heading SE to the Golden Gate, everything began to calm down. We were reduced once more to motoring the last 24 hours or so.

Coming under the Golden Gate Bridge was a still great thrill. We were escorted in by several container ships and bulk carriers. We also had to negotiate our way amongst a multitude of Sunday sailors as we approached the bridge and a host of kayakers testing their cojones in the rip tides just underneath the bridge.

Hank and Bob left the vessel that very evening after showers and a meal with Hank's wife Liz and their daughter/son-in-law at a pizzeria in Sausalito. Bob was planning to catch a bus back to Vancouver the next morning. For us, it was very strange to be suddenly in a quiet harbour and alone once again on board. We spent this morning cleaning up the oily mess in the bilges, a mixture on the one hand of taking sea water from somewhere during the heavy weather and, on the other, the diesel oil I had spilt in there a month or so ago from a broken oil line. Most of the perishable meats and vegetables, a lot of cokes, etc. (although they still looked to be intact, the perforations for the opening tabs had dissolved enough to allow the fluid to leak out), some beer and a lot of other things had to be pitched out. A total loss of beer whilst at sea would normally be regarded as just cause for mutiny. Fortunately however, we had beer stowed elsewhere aboard. A large can of soy sauce had broken open and emptied itself into the bilge as well. I am thinking of bottling and selling our bilge water as Chinese salad dressing!

Sausalito is nice but crowded compared to northern ports and harbours. And you definitely feel that you are a long way south. The floating dock was so hot when we arrived that we were all hopping about like chickens in our bare feet during the mooring procedures. The hot showers were limitless (not coin operated like up north, just all part of the parking price; I am heading for my third one before we push off this afternoon). The public library (computer usage) is close by and very cosy. I have already met a sculptor and a fisherman. The first gave me advice about where I could anchor and take the dinghy ashore without problems. The second offered us the use of his mooring buoy near his wooden cutter. We will hang around here for a few days before visiting San Francisco across the Bay and the Presidio. There are floats there for guys like us. We also intend to drive up the Delta and the Sacramento River to Sacramento if time permits. We want to visit friends there that we made in British Columbia.

It was a little overwhelming at first on the high seas. But we are the stronger for it. We have some things we will change on the vessel and some practices that we will amend and improve. All-in-all a great shakedown and Vilisar is a damned fine and stout craft for bluewater cruising, something our crewmen also attested to. Allowed us to cheat death once more.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Catonsville, MD, Sunday, September 14, 2008

It is definitely time to get back to the outdoor life. Four months in civilization has done nothing for my muscle tone as can be seen in my “before” and “after” photos.

With all flight schedules through Houston out the window thanks to Hurricane IKE, I have been waiting patiently. As it looks now, I shall be leaving Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on Tuesday morning at 0540 hr. and meeting Kathleen at Houston International in the early afternoon to continue on to Guayaquil via Panamá City.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Catonsville, MD, Friday, September 12, 2008

Attentive followers of this blog will recall that this is the actual day that Kathleen and I were to fly back to Ecuador. Since I already had a return ticket before we inserted a visit to Dallas to see my mother for a week, and since making any changes to the original ticket was going to be expensive, I opted simply to leave Kathleen in Dallas, return to Baltimore for a couple nights and meet Kathleen today at Houston Airport to catch the COPA flight to Panamá City and Guayaquil; this used to be a Continental route but, restructuring their business, Continental has passed us over to an allied airline from Panamá.

The best-laid plans, however …! Hurricane IKE has caused Houston International Airport to be closed for a day or so. Since I could not get through either by internet or by phone to re-schedule, I simply drove down there this morning with Kathleen’s mother and re-scheduled on the spot for Sunday.

After returning to Catonsville (fortunately only fifteen minutes by car form the airport), I went back to bed and then spent a few hours sorting pictures from the Dallas trip.

It was great to see my Mum, still very bright and alert mentally though her vision is now gone and her hearing weak. But we visited for a few hours every day as well as singing a recital for her a week ago that went really well and singing at the church service in the residence on Sunday morning.

Parting was a little tough. The last time, at Mum’s 90th Birthday, she was upset and said she might very likely not see me again. Of course, three years later, this becomes even more topical. We were able to talk sometimes about death and dying without being overwhelmed by the subject and our farewells were warm and loving without being unbearably emotional. We remember more the laughing and Mother’s story-telling from her youth and family-rearing years. It was great!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Catonsville, MD, 12 September 2008

Here are some pictures of our partial-family reunion in Dallas.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Dallas, Texas, Thursday, 04 September 2008

Life in airports is pretty bland. I suppose, however, that that’s its chief attraction. After all, who wants excitements, breakdowns, frustrations and lost baggage when all you are trying to do is get from one airport to another with the least possible hassle. Of course, it's all a huge “people-moving” task, to which, sheep-like, we submit ourselves in the interest of smooth flow, and we are lucky if the staff are at least friendly. We expect everything to go smoothly, and airlines and airport authorities generally fulfil their functions admirably. Nor wind nor snow nor sleet … and all that.

Our travel programme to get back to Ecuador is a little complicated since we are making a week-long stop in Dallas to stay with my younger sister and to visit my 93-year-old mother in her nursing home. Hurricane “Gustav” passed through New Orleans yesterday. Although it did not wreak the damage anticipated, the airport there has apparently still to re-open. I therefore happily wind up on the same Southwestern Airlines flight with Kathleen. Instead of New Orleans, we changed planes at Chicago Midway and boarded a flight there that was direct to Dallas with a quick stop in Kansas City. All over the mid- and southwestern U.S.A. the skies are heavily clouded and temperatures were cool as “Gustav” sucks in or distributes colder air across the continent. But, no delays to flights. We set down at Dallas´ “Love Field” in the early afternoon and my sister is there at curb-side by the time we have our luggage off the belt.

The luggage issue is huge for us because of all the boat stuff we have acquired over the last months to take back with us. We checked out which airlines permitted sufficient weights and pieces of luggage, since the financial crisis hitting the travel industry has apparently driven airlines to levying extra charges for carry-on luggage; $25 or $35 fees for a second checked piece of baggage are not longer exceptional. My return flight to Guayaquil starts off with Continental Airlines. But as the airlines come under stress from declining passenger numbers and rising fuel costs, they are adjusting by, for example, dropping flights. Now we fly to Houston with Continental and, at Continental’s instigation, the onward flight to Guayaquil is with COPA with a stop in Panama City. Oh, well! Both Southwestern Airlines domestically and Continental/COPA internationally at least permit two 50-pound suitcases per passenger plus a generous carry-on allowance plus a personal item like a laptop.

The night before we leave Catonsville is largely taken up with packing and re-packing ‘stuff’ until we have the weight spread around. Two large suitcases are filled almost exclusively with boat stuff including books and back numnbers of Harpers and The New Yorker and paperback books. These printed things get priority treatment since, by contrast to many sporty cruising types, we regard our cruising activity as an extended reading tour. The crew of every cruising boat in every faraway port knows this packing drill. We even have a new 30 gal./min. Whale Gusher hand-operated bilge pump to replace our corroded-out old 25 gal/min bilge pump. Were we to ship it to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, the costs and customs duties would be punitive. The last few times we have flown into Ecuador, Customs seem much more lenient in their treatment of tourist baggage at the airports. Pray!!! ‘If they get pernickety we shall plead special circumstances of bringing in items for a vessel in transit.

The airport parallel world

Now that, except for very occasional trips away from Vilisar, I have been out of the airport-travel parallel-world for many years, I am reminded, when I actually do enter an airport, of how far away from all this our life aboard Vilisar really is. Instead of quiet anchorages and some natural noises from the wind through the rigging or the occasional wave slapping the hull, here there are mobs of people, some younger ones marching purposefully through the airport to the taxi ranks and on to their next career appointment downtown, laptop slung over one shoulder, a wheeled carry-on suitcase in tow and a cellphone glued to one ear, but also a lot of tired and grey faces. There are squalling kids and a backdrop of CNN TV, people in loud private conversations on their cellphones and bland announcements over the airport loudspeaker system about curb-side car-parking, security in the terminal or smoking bans

Upfront confrontation with politics

On the 90-minute flight from Baltimore to Chicago, I sit next to a youngish-looking professional lady who sells computer-storage space to government agencies around the country. Of course, the conversation soon turns to politics. The Republican National Convention is on in Minneapolis at present and the vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, had delivered a rousing, “red-meat” acceptance speech on TV the night before. She is a terrifically entertaining speaker, even though the speech itself lacked any real content. It was in fact pretty much like a typical right-wing radio talk-show rant, except Palin’s speechwriters have made her far funnier than, say, Rush Limbaugh.

In my humble opinion, Pallin is young and dynamic, a female of course,but inappropriately self-confident. Republican justifiers will have you believe that she is the only one in the field of presidential and vice-presidential candidates with executive experience. She and her husband, after all, had a small tourist-related business in Alaska, if that qualifies. Being mayor of a town of five or six thousand souls doesn’t really cut it as executive experience and neither does even being governor of a state like Alaska, whose physical dimensions, topography, demography and current problems are totally different from those in the rest of America. She might just as well have come from a totally foreign country. Poverty, racism, infra-structure, deficits? Palin’s experience seems to be mainly a knack for getting the Federal Government to pay for things.

But that's Alaska for you. Voters there may regard themselves as survivalists, but in the whole population of fewer than 700,000 (any city, indeed any large housing project or big-cuty high school, anywhere in the world is bigger by far than the whole population of Alaska) a lot of people are Federal civil servants. Three-quarters of the surface of Alaska is federally-administered, the State managing only 25%. Only 1% is privately owned. Under the old statehood laws (an average of 6 persons per square mile), Alaska would never even have been granted statehood. It's best to think of Alaska like the French think of their Overseas Territories; i.e., Alaska is administered like St. Pierre et Miquelon. Every man, woman and child gets approx. $3,200 annually as a gift, their running share of royalties from Alaska’s huge natural resources. Since current oil shipments are running lower, it is only the current high price of oil that permits the State to continue these annual payments whilst keeping state taxes low. It also explains why the state wants so badly to drill in the protected wildlife areas. The pipeline from the north was built for 2 million gallons per day but is at present running at only 700,000 barrels per day. It doesn’t explain why Alaskans should be smothered in Federal subsidies, however, when it is more like Dubai: short on people and long on natural resources.

Palin’s politics don’t speak to me anyway: she’s against abortion under any circumstances whatsoever; she’s a big gun fan; hasn't two clues to rub together about international affairs; if she has any opinion about public finances or globilisation or free trade they have yet to be vouchsafed us, etc. etc. The experience of the Governor of Alaska or any other thinly-populated, resource-oriented state is not very likely to be of much use as President.

On top of that, I think she’s a total flake. Her being called to be vice-presidential nominee is like some sort of Disney movie about a small-town hockey mom who out of the blue becomes vice-president and, by a stroke of personal luck but national and international misfortune, is catapulted into the White House. Why not Paris Hilton? Does she in any way compare in experience to Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice or Nancy Pilosi? Pathetic! Or has the federal elections turned into "American Idol"?

All that said, airplanes are a great place to meet Americans from outside your normal circle of acquaintances. You are randomly seated next to strangers and both of you are trapped for a longer period with nothing much to do.

Kathleen and I were travelling through the USA during the last two presidential elections. I learned that it is a big mistake to base one’s predictions about the outcome of the elections on one’s subjective impressions. For example, everybody we talked to in 2000 was voting for Gore. Whatever you say about the Supreme Court tossing the election to Bush in 2000, the election itself turned out however to be a close-run thing and not the landslide for Gore I was naturally expecting from my subjective impressions in the months prior to the election. I was more cautious in 2004, therefore, and was not completely surprised that, despite a much higher overall turnout, Bush won by a hair – and won legitimately, if (despite some evidence to the contrary) we assume the digital voting machines had not been tampered with in Ohio and elsewhere.

Back to the ariplane. My seat-neighbour, as I mentioned, was a professional woman with two college degrees. She sells computer storage space, mainly, in her case, to the government and its agencies. She was a born-again Christian, “very patriotic”, loved Palin and McCain and hated Barack Obama and all his works. Obama doesn’t wear an American flag lapel-pin and doesn’t put his hand over his heart when he sings the national anthem, she told me; his tax plan will hit her directly given her income level; there is far too much government & taxes anyway (despite the fact that she makes her living selling to the government and despite the fact that she wants all levels of education to be free); Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. are all just for the lazy and greedy; everyone should carry a gun; Palin is terrific and has all kinds of executive experience; John McCain is a war hero and experienced internationally while Barack Obama was only a community organiser, whatever that is.

No, she is not from another planet; it's just the Republican Party line. It was the vehemence of her opinions that struck me and the fact that, if you hearken to the polls, half of the electorate agrees with her.

Ever since Obama won the Democratic nomination, his campaign has seemed lacklustre. He rode a wave of popular approval because he was so much more interesting and idealistic and capable-sounding than the dour and dowdy John McCain. Anyway, McCain was seen to be McSame or McBush: George W. Bush all over again. Now "The Barracuda" will be sent out to motivate the masses with her rantings, nipping at Obama’s heels and distracting the electorate from the real issues with her ad hominem personal attacks. McCain stands behind her, grinning: for the moment he's the organ-grinder watching his helper. You love to watch her in the same way you like to watch Saturday Night Live or The Daily Report. It's been ten days now and already we are wondering who that whie-haired guy with the shithouse grin is behind Sarah Pallin. "I am Sarah Palin and I approve this message."

And it’s working. She is siphoning off some undecided voters. Ever since she was nominated, McCain has even taken the lead in the popularity polls, if not in electoral-college predictions. So, unless Obama comes up with some antidote, unless he stops being relentlessly reasonable and logical, he might just lose this election. Time to take off the gloves. (Take a look at He’s tearing his hair out and he’s right.)

This is turning into Palin’s election to lose. Never mind that if the organ-grinder becomes president he will keep her chained and muzzled or he is likely to find himself with another Spiro Agnew on his hands.