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, January 24, 2009

La Playita Anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá, Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s a perfect Trade-Winds day in Panamá. The wind has picked up from the NE in the early afternoon, the sky is cloud-free, the temperature hovers like every day at this time of the year at around 30ºC, but the humidity today is only about 50%. About forty cruising boats lie at anchor here with flags from nearly as many countries

It would be a perfect day for sailing to the Islas Las Perlas about 40 Nm away to the SE. But Vilisar is staying put. There are two reasons for this. First, when we arrived in the Islas Las Perlas from Ecuador on Boxing Day, I discovered that the two long bolts that hold the uppermost gudgeon to the deadwood were no longer holding anything at all. They appear to have sheared off leaving the rudder dangerously weakened. We jury-rigged it all with webbing and, after a week in The Perlas to recuperate from the windward bash up from Ecuador, we motor-sailed up to Panamá City in order to get it attended to.

The anchorage itself is pleasant though perhaps a little rolly due to the marine traffic. Whenever you look out another huge container ship, bulk-carrier, car-transporter or cruise-ship is passing in or out of the Pacific-Ocean end of the Panamá Canal. There are some distinct disadvantages of the location: the only dock where you can land your dinghy, for example, is nearly totally unsuitable for dinghies and the people there seem intent only on gouging the gringo cruisers; and, because the anchorage is at the extreme end of the Amador Causeway, it takes quite a while to get to anywhere in Panamá City. You can see the high-rise buildings across the bay, but it takes at least an hour to get into town even to shop for basic groceries. There are busses but they are infrequent; the taxi-drivers seem to have two sets of prices and we are definitely not getting the cheaper tariff.

We took our time about checking in since we would only be granted a 90-day tourist visa. I wanted to make sure we would not be pressured to leave once Kathleen returned from Germany in mid-March. We hired Israel, an older taxi-driver, to chauffeur us around to all the stations of the cross involved with the check-in: Aduana (customs); Quarantina (Health); Migración (Immigration) and Capitania de Puerto (Port Captain). With Israel’s help this all went relatively smoothly and, to be fair, the bureaucrats were all friendly and pretty straightforward. We got it all done in a only a few hours despite the fact that we had to travel quite a few miles to touch base at all the offices. By comparison to the sleepy port of Bahía de Caraquéz or Manta in Ecuador, Panamá City is of course a hugely international harbour and therefore has a completely different flavour to it.

Parts of Panamá City are typical Third World; crowded, hot, dirty and teeming with people. Panamá is perhaps better off economically than other Latin American countries - it seems to have replaced Miami as the crossroads of finances for Latin America, and the huge numbers of new high-rises are the outward expression of this. But like most of Latin America, there are huge gradients in the standard of living and wealth of the people; i.e., there is a small elite with lots of money while most people are left to scrabble for their existence. Panamá is also considered a safe haven for flight money. Whenever Chavez opens his mouth, for example, more money pours in within a few days from Venezuela. Although they no longer actually “own” the Panamá Canal, perhaps international hot money thinks the U.S. Marines will always nix any threats to private property here. Whether its true or not, everyone here tells you that most of the money comes from illegal drug trafficking. Columbia is after all only next door.

Some parts of Panama City are definite No Go Areas and even taxi drivers will not enter them at night. The same applies apparently to some country highways after dark. Then there is the old Canal Zone, which contains all the Panamá Canal buildings erected pre-World War One (the first ship, the Ancon, went through in August 1914) by the U.S. Corps of engineers to manage the construction and, later, the administration of the Canal. It has been “civilisanised” now but, unlike the downtown areas, gives off somewhat the same atmosphere as a military camp, which of course it was for close to 100 years. There is lots of green grass and trees and the buildings have a garrison flavour even though many have been modernised as housing or offices. There are no strip malls and no billboards.

Never having been in Panamá City before, it also took a while to find somebody who could take care of our boat repair. Jim Lang is a New Zealander with many years of wooden-boot experience. He lives permanently here now and has lots of wooden-boat projects. Mostly he works out of the commercial-fishing yard at Vacamonte, about 40 Km west of here and has a team of local craftsmen. But he also works on boats at Balboa Yacht Club where they can be hauled up on the marine ways there. The problem is to get a few days on the ways since this, the dry season, is when the international fleet of cruising boats is having hulls painted or other work done before crossing the Pacific or passing through the Canal to the Caribbean. The earliest we could schedule was Carneval weekend starting 23 February. Not only is that a wait of about six weeks, a period during which Vilisar could not be sailed, I secretly wonder whether any locals will be prepared to work at all over Carneval.

With a sigh, I accept what I can get and am trying to get my mind around making the best of Panamá City as a batchelor. Kathleen is scheduled to leave for Baltimore and Frankfurt today, 15 January. At least, when she returns, I think the boat work will have been completed and we can get on with cruising while the NE Trades season lasts. I leave aside the ongoing fundamental discussion about where our next cruise should actually take us and, indeed, whether there will even be a next cruise. The hardships and discomforts of the windward voyage up here before Christmas are fading in our memories, and it is hard to be against sailing when the weather is so perfect. But, the discussion is ongoing.

Shortly before leaving Ecuador I had broken a crown off one my molars and our friends Philip and Leslie of S/V Carina bring me to a good dental clinic here in Panamá City after we arrive. After completing the Check-in Cha-cha, I find myself in a dental stool with Dr. Erasmus Aries, an American-trained odontólogo (dentist), while he probes inside my mouth. A very professional gentlemen in a very modern group practice. The bottom line is that not only will I need a root-canal job, but the crown will have to be replaced and I will therefore also need a completely new bridge. “In excess of $1,500”, he announces, which sounds more like $2,000.

I had not contemplated travelling to Europe with Kathleen. But, only two days before Kathleen’s departure, the economics have now changed. Hunting around on the internet Kathleen finds me a round trip ticket to Frankfurt for under $1,000 and we book it. I will not be going to Baltimore and will actually arrive in Germany two weeks before she does, although we will return at the same time (09 March), albeit with different airlines and different routings. I touch base with Jim Lang, rebook the marine ways for mid-March and pack my bags. I have a serious deficit on winter clothing! Shoes, as opposed to sandals, are a challenge as well.

We use the time before Kathleen departs to visit one or two sites of interest. Using local busses we spend a Sunday visiting the famous Miraflores Locks, for example, to watch cargo ships and yachts pass through. I had offered to be a line-handler for the S/V Legacy (Chris & Heather) on the 20/21 January but will now have to have that experience when we return. For the moment we can just watch other sailboats passing through. A day later we also go on a tour by motorised-dugout canoe up the River Chagras (the fresh-water source of all the water used for the canal locks) to visit the Imberra Drua Indian village.

This morning at 0600 I row Kathleen into the dock where Israel is waiting to take her to the airport. After the closeness of life together on a small sailboat, losing your mate is like separating Siamese twins. I find it a wrench each time but at least this time it is only for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

18 December 2008 to Boxing Day, 26 December 2008

18 December 2008

The 2.4-metre high tide on which five cruising boats were planning to depart was listed for 0800 this morning. Kathleen had been doing the clearance paperwork these past two weeks in addition to her online proofreading. In Ecuador, port and national clearings have gone from simplicity itself two years ago (albeit with a little pocket-money sometimes sticking to the fingers of certain Migración officers) to increasing levels of bureaucracy today. We try to follow the local rules, but it sometimes a little difficult even to know just what they are. In addition to your marina being required to get you listed in the Armada del Ecuador’s computer so you can even begin the clearing-out process, you first visit the Capitanía de Puerto for a Zarpe (i.e., departure certificate, which essentially states that you are leaving the port in good standing - with various merchants and perhaps the Law, one supposes). No airline or car or bus or foot-departure ever involves a Zarpe and many countries like Canada have dispensed with them altogether; only boats in places like Latin America require them still. With the Zarpe in hand you travel two hours over to Manta and check out with Migración. This cost $15 for the two of us this time, no waiting and nice friendly people. No baksheesh asked for or even hinted at this time. All the male Migración officers wore decorative riding spurs on their shoes. Curious.

It all happened so quickly at Migración, indeed, that we had plenty of time afterwards to visit the beach-shipyard and see the log from which our new wormshoe was cut (see Blog 2008 11 25 “Building Boats on Beaches” and Blog 11 01 2009 “Beached”). I was not along for the purchasing expedition, so I was eager to see the source of the wood used. Wacho then invited us to a restaurant he knew near the beach for Sopa Marinero, something like bouillabaisse, before driving back to Bahía. The trip back was quiet because we had had a big lunch (and a beer), because we were still tired from the sleepless weekend of careening Vilisar, and because leave-taking time was approaching.

We had travelled over to Manta in Wacho’s truck, Babushka, so we were also able to pick up our two hundred feet of chain and the CQR anchor from Galvinazado del Pacifico. The price was altogether reasonable at $1.30 per kilo (altogether $165). The plant’s crew had it all loaded into the truck bed while we were inside paying, and one chap, obviously the foreman, a guy with a face you would not like to meet in a dark alley, was actually lying atop the chain and expecting a tip when we came out to leave. His crew stood idly by on the loading platform. Wacho quietly suggested $5; big smiles all round and we were off. But, back at the boat, the shoddy galvanisation workmanship became all-too-immediately evident. The anchor and the separate shackles look fine, and so did the parts of the chain that were on the top of the pile. But many sections were so rough with beaded zinc residue that it looked like a case of leprosy. I silently cursed myself for not checking more carefully back at the plant before accepting the work. Not that there was any time left now before departure date to do much about it. I mounted the spare anchor on its bow roller and, stowed the chain under the cabin sole.

If you are ever inclined to get galvanisation work done at Galvanizado del Pacifico in Manta, see if you can find another place first. The same company actually does metalwork, including building steel tanks, pipefitting and a huge range of galvanisation for the huge tuna-fishing and canning industry around the town. You would think they had some standards; and they do, but apparently they are not high! You might say that they fail to live up to the low standards they set for themselves! S/V Nine o’ Cups, now down in Chile, had a very frustrating experience with the steel fuel tank Galvanizado del Pacifico made for them; it was by no means cheap (I recall Dave telling me that he paid $1,100 for one medium-sized fuel tank): there were over thirty air holes in that single tank, which the makers had asserted several times that they had pressure-tested. With Nine o’ Cups’ bad experience in mind, Wacho took me along to “Amigo Felix” in nearby Leonidas Plaza who did a terrific job at a very reasonable price: $750 for two 1/8-inch, black-steel tanks with a total volume of about 70 U.S. gallons.

The days prior to putting out on a passage are always busy and, for me, physically exhausting. On top of the normal preparations, last weekend we were totally tied up with careening Vilisar and replacing her sacrificial worm-shoe (see earlier blog). Once back at anchor with our visa time rapidly expiring, everything had of course to be made shipshape, the job being complicated by the fact that the whole starboard side of the boat interior was soaking because drinking water had run out through the air vent while Vilisar was laid over on her side. The effect was similar to a sinking since many things were ruined (old photos and papers, for example), the mattresses had to be pulled out and dried and all the wet clothes had to be re-washed. This was not exactly a handy time to have all this going on.

Turning a floating home back into a cruising vessel definitely means work. I re-installed the jib stay after trying to have it re-galvanised (no go). Instead, I treated it with rust converter, sand paper and black car paint (here called “syntetico”). It looks great, at least! But we shall see how it lasts. I am considering replacing the un-parcelled and un-served galvanised wire-rope head-stays with stainless rigging to protect the sails from rust stains. The red sails had to be hauled out of storage in the forecastle and bent on. This work seems to be getting heavier every year! Then the interior of the boat had to be stowed and secured properly, the windvane tab affixed to its stern rig and one or two new shackles on the boomkin moused. The deck of the boat was hideously dirty from all the dust blowing across the estuary from the bridge construction. When damp the deck looked like a mud pie. On the penultimate day we received and bunkered seventy gallons of diesel fuel (at $1.50/gal delivered to the boat) into our new fuel tanks (plus two additional 5-gallon jugs on deck). On the very last full day, Carlos and Raimundo also brought out fourteen 5-gallon jugs of agua pura (drinking water), most of which all had to be poured individually into the two inside tanks under the cabin berths with the remainder going into four 5-gallon deck-jugs. I checked to make sure the air vent hoses inside were up as high as possible and the fresh water would therefore not run out into the hull while were heeled over at sea. All the soggy British Admiralty “Pilots” that use to live under the berth have had to be removed and dried out. We gave up hope of saving them all but we still have about six of them to cover parts of our future voyage in the South Pacific and SE Asia. Perhaps I never really expected to use them all –they included things like the Gulf of Aden and the Dover Pilot – but they were given to us by Second Mate McKinnon of the cable-laying ship (Bold Endurance) in Victoria, British Columbia, and so had sentimental value from that point-of-view too.

At the same time, there are the farewell lunches and dinners and drinks. Our good friend Wacho invited us for a farewell dinner of Ecuadorian fritadas, which here is basically banana-crisps, coleslaw and some meat. He had invited various common acquaintances from the local community and Julio from S/V Pancho from Chile. These evenings can be a struggle when your Spanish is not great. But Wacho was saying that we had both improved in Spanish from when he first met us a year ago at the Club de Yate where the mast was laid out for repair. Back then I had to dig out my dictionary for every other word (now it’s every third word; LOL). On the last day we also had a delicious BBQ lunch with Susie and Nick down at Hostal Coco Bongo, which we had to cut a bit short so we could get the dinghy stowed on deck before darkness fell.

Every other time we have left on a long voyage, it seems we are putting the dinghy over the fore-hatch in the dark at midnight and that we are nowhere near fully-stowed when the anchor is finally brought up. We do not want to have to anchor off the Bahía’s Pacific-Ocean beach for a day this time while we finish stowing and while rolling around in the swells. No, this is going to be done before dark this afternoon! And it is, although when Coby and Arnold (S/V Drifter, Rotterdam) come by to pick us up for a farewell drink at Puerto Amistad, we still had a nav table full of bits and pieces and are still bickering mildly about where the stuff can be stowed. I am totally sweated and quite exhausted and only want S&B, “shower & bed”. But, S&B becomes shower and beers: Wacho and Julio; Heinz and Sylvia of S/V Galathe, Salzburg; Coby and Arnold of S/V Drifter, Amsterdam; and Kim Corson of S/V Altaire, Phoenix, Arizona.

Then all the hugging and promises to write and send photos and hoping to meet downwind and “Happy Christmas” and “safe voyage” or buen viaje”. The staff at Puerto Amistad all embrace us and so do the various other people around. This leave-taking can be difficult, especially since we have been here so much in the last two and one-quarter years. At last, Heinz and Sylvia, still comparing notes from their experiences on the tidal grid last weekend, drop us off in their inflatable back at Vilisar. As soon as I am down below I remember that I have left my backpack at the restaurant; Melinda and George of S/V Southern Belle, New Orleans, bring it out to us later. By that time Kathleen is asleep and I am struggling mightily to keep my eyes open. I am only mildly apprehensive about departing in the morning; we have done the channel on our own before and Vilisar is better stowed and ready than in other departures.

Vilisar looked great as we approach her by the light of the street lanterns ashore. What all haven’t we done to her? New fuel tanks; lifted the motor off its mounts while we were at anchor and replaced an inaccessible oil seal; replaced the top of the wooden mast where it had rotted; re-conditioned the whole standing rig, installed a new Whale Gusher hand-operated bilge pump; reconditioned the old Jabsco engine-driven bilge pump; rebuilt the propane galley stove; replaced deck turning blocks, installed a new tri-colour masthead light with LED bulb; replaced all the batteries with larger capacity units; made a new, fibre-glassed battery box at the foot of the companionway ladder; replaced the rotted-out engine-heat “chimney”; painted her bottom, topsides, mast, spreaders and her cabin, inside and out; replaced the wormshoe; and even fitted the old girl out with a new set of tan-bark working sails. A million smaller things too.

All this was done in Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, where there are no shipyards and no boatworks, no cranes or travel lifts and few skilled craftsmen. We just accepted that we would have to take some risks, like pulling the mast and re-stepping it using two other sailboats, leaning her against a makeshift grid for painting, careening Vilisar on a beach and using local carpenteros navales to do the worm-shoe repairs. We not only saved a lot of money by avoiding boatyards and travel lifts not to mention the frequently over-priced work provided to gringo yachties even by other gringos, we also created indelible personal experiences with local people. This surely goes to the heart of what we mean by cruising to foreign lands. We didn’t perhaps “do” Machu Picchu, although we travelled inland to the Andes in Ecuador. But, on the other hand, we ran training workshops for budding Ecuadorian choral conductors in various cities including Quito and we had a lot of work done by local people, so we met singers, conductors, musicians, shipwrights, mechanics, welders and electricians, in other words, just regular Ecuadorians. As a token of our appreciation, we gave a free public recital in Bahia – sold-out as it developed - and when we walk down the streets of the small beach town of Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, every other person calls out to us or toots and waves as they drive by. Our lives as cruisers have been a little out of the normal rut of cruising, perhaps. But what an experience. WE al say we want to go to other countries and meet the people. We did it!

I mentioned the increased bureaucracy associated with leaving Ecuador by boat. It´s probably only onerous by comparison to the good ol´days. But, nowadays, you have to be inspected at the very last minute by the Ecuadorian departments of Health, Immigration, Customs and, finally as usual, the Port Captain. Except for the Port Captain’s petty officer, the other people have to be brought out by taxi from Manta. Five boats were leaving this morning early. Over the past few weeks 10-15 boats have already left for Panamá, Chile, Easter Island, The Galapagos or French Polynesia. A taxi is therefore sent from Bahía to Manta to bring the officials out and return them. In the past they sometimes arrived late, and the cruiser scuttlebutt yesterday night was that they were never going to be finished in time for everybody to get out on the tide. In this case, the five boats shared the $60 in taxi costs.

Then there was a big discussion about whether or not even to use a pilot. Some have said that the channel through the entrance bar has changed so much recently that you cannot count on using your GPS track from when you entered. On the other hand, the pilot is going to cost each boat $20 ($30 for one boat, but $20 each if there are more). Rather strange pricing since there is only one pilot and he leads a convoy out so only one boat really has its own guide. There used to be an official pilot; now it is Carlos of Puerto Amistad.) One cruiser said he only took the pilot because his insurance might not pay up if he has an accident on the way out without guidance. I wonder if the insurance company would accept that he was just following another boat. We’re not insured so we can only complain to ourselves.

Although I feet a certain peer pressure - or is it herd mentality? -we decide to forego the privilege of being piloted out and leave on our own. Last week a French cruiser was actually held back by the Port Captain until all the other boats were out of sight around the point so he wouldn’t attach himself to them. Not sure why the Port Captain should even be involved in that, but this is Bahía. I had found the exit waypoints on the Yahoo Group “Southbound” (thank you Eric of S/V Sarana, Seattle) and entered them into my handheld GPS. I am sure they will be all right since Eric is so thorough and the soundings were made just a month or so ago. Nevertheless, I had a funny feeling in my stomach knowing that everybody else was using a pilot.

Fortunately, the inspectors arrive on time, visit Vilisar first, and are alongside in their panga just before 0630 – i.e., while we were still not fully dressed. The whole ‘inspection’ takes about twenty minutes and, in addition to the practique, the doctor even gives Kathleen a free medical tip about treating the swelling from an insect sting yesterday (anti-biotic crème or otherwise lime juice, which she had already used, or vinegar). At 0645 we start the engine, give each other a hug to compensate for my stress-related bad-humour while getting ready. I go forward to hand in the anchor while Kathleen takes her accustomed seat at the tiller. Fifteen minutes later, anchor aweigh, we are motoring north down the estuary to the narrows bound for the open sea and Panamá. As we round the point where the sea meets the river coming through the narrow channel and causes such turbulence, we see Babushka driving along the street ashore parallel to us.

The careful tip-toeing passage over the bar is totally uneventful, as it turns out. The lowest depth we had was briefly 7 feet. We wave to Wacho on shore as we make the final right-turn of the dogleg and head west away from Bahía. Our red mainsail has been up from the beginning. Now we pull up the head sails, not without some snarls, but they are now at least up and pulling. At 0805 we turn off the engine and find ourselves doing over five knots close-hauled. We see the convoy of other boats coming out after us (S/V Taremaro, Dordrecht, S/V Southern Belle, New Orleans, S/V Iwa, San Diego and S/V Encore, Florida)

The breeze hardly seems strong enough to be pushing us along so fast, and we are by no means heeled over. Maybe there is a current. Last year on the way to Panamá, we beat our own daily passage record on this same stretch, making about 140 Nm on this very same stretch.

The five sailboats fan out over the ocean. Taremaro heads off due west toward The Galapagos, a week away. The rest of us are heading either for Western Panamá or Islas Las Perlas over near the Columbian border with Panama. We struggle to get our sails set properly and to get the electronic tiller pilot working. It doesn’t cooperate. We therefore play around with the Cap Horn windvane steering. But even it is proving recalcitrant this morning and the boat keeps rounding up. I do my best to balance the sails, but only after I crawl out on the lazarette deck to replace the little line that keeps the vane itself from flopping over too far does Vilisar finally stop yawing so broadly and stick better to her course. By this time Southern Belle, a big catamaran, is nearly out of sight and Iwa (Jack and Hermi) and Encore (Buzz and Maureen) with their big roller-furling gennies are doing at least a knot faster than us and are at least two miles ahead of us and opening the gap. Once we get the course, the sails and the windvane all sorted out, Vilisar starts to do 5 knots too in a comfortable broad reach in low swells.

I throw bucket after bucket of seawater to clean that Bahía sand and mud off the decks. I stow the sail ties, rig the life-lines and get out the jack lines to be installed. We always try to remember that the first day or two at sea i.e., until you get into the watch-keeping routine and overcome your pre-departure sleep deprivation, it can be like the first couple of uncomfortable mornings on a camping trip. Surprisingly, this time, things are looking good. Kathleen’s seasickness has been kept in check by both taking Stugeron and wearing the acu-pressure cuffs, a braces-and-belt approach to combating motion-sickness. Once we have the boat moving along and we have had something to eat, we both feel better and have more patience. Now we are looking forward to gunkholing in the islands a week hence. Kathleen heads below to get some sleep.

Friday, 19 December 2008

By dark we had lost sight of the other boats ahead of us. I guess Vilisar is just not a racer. Maybe we should consider getting a big roller-furling genoa sail. But, we are in no real hurry to get any place anyway. One day more or less doesn’t that mean much to us, I keep reminding myself. We enjoy the smooth sailing and napping. In the late afternoon I feel refreshed enough to steam up a pot of potatoes, carrots, broccoli and onions for our first daily hot meal. We down it ravenously. We discuss watchkeeping and decide to go for 3-hour stints again. If somebody feels wide-awake enough, he/she can let the other person sleep a bit longer, but 2 hours, while it passes quickly on watch, seems too short to get good, deep sleep, and four hours can be interminable for the watchkeeper. The Cap Horn is performing beautifully and there is almost no yawing in our course. We are travelling on a broad port reach at between 5 and 6 knots. I must accidentally have kicked the wire leading to the binnacle light as it declines to be illuminated. But we have the GPS with its built-in compass and light, and we have flashlights. Our new masthead LED tri-colour light works fine.

Inside, the only sound is the water rushing along the side of the boat; it sounds a bit like a little gurgling stream. Every ten or fifteen minutes the watchkeeper puts down his book and climbs the companionway ladder to sweep the horizon for ship-borne or land-based lights. Lights are basically all that you can see on a moonless night: it is so dark that anything actually in the water is invisible. After spending most of the afternoon on the bridge to combat her seasickness, Kathleen was asleep almost before she can pull her eye-blinders on (so that I can use the reading light; I gave our LED-miner’s lamp away to Wacho who can use it in his work; will have to get another as it is ideal for use on the boat).

On my 15-minutes patrols, I take good look around (especially forward, which is the most inconvenient direction to look from the companionway), I check the compass each time and I run the flashlight over the windvane. Sometimes, I go right up on deck and shine the flashlight forward and up the mast to make sure nothing untoward is occurring. Then I enjoy the view. In the middle of the night a half-moon climbs rapidly into the sky. Late in the evening while it is so dark still, I sit in the cockpit to keep an eye on the lights I see straight ahead of me in the distance. They are probably fishing pangas but I am still not sure. We pass them well to the east. I hear their outboards from time to time even after the lights have been extinguished. While all this is going on a school of large porpoises plays around the boat. You can’t actually see them, but you can see their glowing trails in the phosphorescent water. They look like torpedoes coming at you! Vilisar’s wake streaming out behind us is like a white pathway through the black ocean waters. Sometime in the middle of the night we cross the equator. No celebration; this is becoming old hat to us.

I also have time to think about my mother. She passed away peacefully on 16 December in her 93rd year. At the end she was in the hospice at the nursing home where she had lived in Dallas for the last six years. My sister was with her when she slipped away. We visited her last summer for a week and even sang a song recital for her and her friends. She was still mentally bright and interested although she has not been able either to see or to walk for several years now. She was always such a cheerful soul, always ready with a laugh. I know she has been ready to go for several years now. We had no outstanding issues between us. I have nothing but gratitude for her life and what she gave to me. Tonight, as I sit in the cockpit and contemplate the stars and the mooon, it is easy to imagine her close presence.

Just at daybreak today, Friday (always just shortly before 0600 here at the equator), we find ourselves in a muddle of large dark rain squalls. It has already rained once in the night - enough to make me slide the hatch-cover closed and put the canvas cover over the skylight (it leaks in heavy rain). Now at dawn we are about to get it hard. I bring down the jib and then the staysail before the rain hits us. Since Kathleen is handling the tiller for this manoeuvre, we are both soaked to the skin. It’s not that cold, really. But at this time of the day and in our tired early-morning mood, we get our fleece jackets on. They are soon drenched and soggy too. We try to laugh and remind ourselves that it would be intolerable up in British Columbia whereas here it’s just a little irritation. We sort of half convince ourselves. The windvane steering has been acting crazily because, near the squalls, the wind shifts and drops constantly. At one time we even gybe involuntarily before I can get on deck. I offer up a prayer of thanks for the “Dutchman” boom brake.

All around us the horizon looks black and threatening. For half and hour or more we get heavy rain and then just drizzle. No wind. We decide to motor but with the mainsail up to steady us. The seas are very choppy and confused and Vilisar pitches headlong northwards at about 3 knots straight into steep though not high waves, throwing water out from her bows. We are motoring with the reefed mainsail to steady us in the swells. The Navico 5500 tiller pilot handles the steering until it packs it in. Too much water? Damnation! This means hand-steering, just about the most boring and exasperating job at sea.

By mid-morning we seem to be through the band of showers. A washed-out sun appears and there is just enough blue showing to patch a Dutchman’s trousers. The heat from our air-cooled Lister engine takes the chill off being in the open cockpit and also acts like an automatic clothes drier. Once your few articles of clothing are wrung out you can sit naked in the cockpit with warm air blowing on you from the “chimney”, while your wet things are heated and dried into stiff, salt-encrusted boards by the heat exhaust. While U Wait! Now, who says we don’t have mod cons? I adjust the tiller using shock cord so that it keeps us on course for minutes at a time. I am a little dejected that the electronic tiller pilot doesn’t work and foresee hours and hours of sitting in the cockpit while we motor into adverse winds farther north.

Kathleen comes on watch about mid-morning. I hit the berth, put up the leecloth and am out straightaway. A bit later she calls me to discuss the line of Clorox bottles she has come across; obviously this is a fisherman’s drift line, albeit in this case both unmarked and unattended. We run along it to the east for several miles and still it continues on over the horizon. You can’t just drive over it because the long-line lies close to the surface and might foul your propeller. Indeed, you might just wind up pulling the line into a long V and bringing your boat to a near stop. Eventually, we lose patience, approach the blue nylon line carefully until I can catch it with our boat pole, pull it up and cut the line through. The line is so tense that I almost only needed to touch the sharp blade to it for it to zing. It would be nice if they would actually mark these lines. Coming down from Panamá last year I was caught several times. They don’t seem to want to go under the boat, so I would start the engine and gently back away from them by reversing the engine or just cut them. If they are attended, the fishermen will guide you around or over their lines. But these ones are a nuisance.

About 1330 a panga approaches us, obviously just curious about a sailboat with no helmsman. They keep a distance. Eventually, I wave them over and pass them three pieces of fresh fruit. We chat for a moment. They point to where their own drift line is (way off to the west we see a black buoy flag) and finally they push off back to work. They are out here from Esmeraldas, Ecuador’s northernmost coastal city and a big refinery and transhipment centre. It is just east of our position. In fact, at night we could still see the lights of the city on the horizon.

Before we left Bahia, the weather probs forecast beneficial southerly winds, waves and swells for at least half of the trip north. But now as the second day is ending, we seem definitely to have run out of southerly anything. At mid-afternoon, there is no wind, but at least the chop has died away and the Pacific swells are smooth and unruffled by wind waves. Without the chop Vilisar can make much better speed and the ride is a lot more comfortable. Our old 19½ bhp Lister 3-cylinder diesel is not really made for motorised passage-making. If any real current, chop or wind comes up against us, we cannot really maintain any speed at all and the engine heats up. Stronger winds and waves are commoner in the afternoon, so sometimes we just heave to, turn off the engine and wait until the wind dies after dark to keep on motoring.

Saturday, 20 December 2008 (0200 hours)

We motored yesterday for a few hours when around noon the wind picked up. From the SW, thank goodness! Soon we have all the working sails up. I am not psychologically geared up to dragging out the lightweight, red drifter-sail, unhanking the Yankee and rigging the bigger sail, although that might be better for us. The work is too heavy right now. We talk again about someday getting a furling genoa; it was just too much money for us this time around. I watched Iwa and Encore step away from us with their big head sails, which they rolled out without even having to go on the foredeck.

We see occasional fishing pangas in the distance but no one comes near. We pass a big steel trawler with a huge tower with a crows nest on it. I wonder why. The shipboard routine clicks in and Kathleen offers to fix us something to eat in the late afternoon. This will be our main meal of the day. I am too tired to even think about food. But once presented with a heaping bowl of veggies and tinned tuna fish, I wolf it down.

We have lots of porpoises of different types visiting us today. The air temperatures have become much warmer, the air more tropical as we move away from the Humboldt Current, and it is possible to sit out in the cockpit in the late afternoon and at night without a jacket. Without anything, really! We sit in the cockpit together for the first time in many months and talk above the engine noise, which is less abovedecks. Up here it sounds like a throaty Harley-Davidson idling away.

We are off the coast of Columbia now. I wonder why we don’t see more fishing boats. Off Ecuador there always lots. Now, in the middle of the night, we have seen nothing for hours and hours. Maybe I shall rig a fishing line ourselves tomorrow.

The winds remain SW and the Cap Horn handles the steering. Everything is going smoothly. The total distance from Bahía to Isla del Rey, our target, is about 540 Nm due north. At midnight this morning (two hours ago, we still had 363 Nm to go. So far we have encountered either SW winds or no winds. The GRIB weather files promised northerlies and low but steep, short windwaves from the N (5 feet waves at 3-5 second intervals = uncomfotable) once we get through the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Covergence Zone or “Doldrums”). Not looking forward to that.


We were motoring along after sun-up. I was on deck and keeping an eye on what appeared to be two ships or possibly one peculiarly-shaped vessel off to the NE that might be approaching us. Then we heard someone hailing us on the VHF radio. I was on deck but still wearing the earplugs I use when the engine is running and was uncertain what was actually being said. But, Kathleen called up from her berth. I came below and was close to the radio when we heard Warship #60 calling the unidentified sailing vessel at a particular map coordinate a second time. The voice stated that they were moving west at 12 knots and were unable to manoeuvre; we should wait until they had passed and not attempt to cross their bows. At present they assess that we are on a collision course.

I have a little chat with the radio operator. By now the ships are getting much closer, clearer and larger. While at first I thought one ship was being towed, in fact, a U.S. Navy supply ship (identified as #10 on its bows) is refuelling a U.S. Navy destroyer (#60) while they steam along in tandem. As they come closer the pair appear huge in the hitherto empty ocean, and they are moving far more quickly than had appeared from a greater distance. We want to turn right and pass behind them, but the voice inexplicably asks us to turn to port. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we do it anyway. But, then we turn back east and wait for them to glide by. Since a light SW wind has picked up to replace the calms of the night, this is a good time to get our headsails up and finally turn off the Lister. As they pass, we go back on our course, this time under sail-power. Those two guys take up a lot of ocean for this refuelling manoeuvre. I guess the U.S. Navy keeps warships off the coasts down here; the warships stay on station and fuel and other supplies are brought to them. Plan Columbia?

Ahead of us across the horizon by about midday is a band of black clouds which as we near separate themselves into individual tropical squalls. No lightening, but clearly a lot of rain coming at us. There didn’t seem to be much chance to steer our way through them, so we keep to our northerly course. The sky gets very dark, a black monster that stretches for miles to the left and right but is apparently headed for Colombia. The winds in the vicinity of the first squall suddenly drop altogether, alternatively backing and veering. Around the skirt of the squall the water was inky black except for small white caps expanding out from the storm.

We hurriedly turn on the engine and douse our headsails but not before the rain hits us. There are no severe gusts, but we would have been totally becalmed in the storm if only under sail. So, dripping wet, we tidy up around the deck and cockpit, turn the helm over to the Navico, which seems to be working beautifully again, and go below, sliding the hatchcover closed above us. With puddles forming at our feet on the cabin sole, we watch through the portholes as the sky darkens and the rain falls in torrents. There is wave action now and Vilisar rocks and rolls a little bit while we steam forward at about 4 knots. It is chilly and uncomfortable outside, but not, as we both observe again, bone-chillingly cold as it would have been in British Columbia.

The heavy rain finds the leak at the starboard front cabin corner post. I have never been able to seal this off completely despite many attempts. Usually I keep salt water on the deck to keep the planking tight. But recently, with the work being carried out on board and the distraction of careening, etc., I have neglected this. The estuary water in Bahía was brown with sand anyway. Soon Kathleen’s berth is being soaked as the water follows the wiring and the edge of wood back aft. Another leak that has plagued us ever since we bought Vilisar comes in just from around the companionway hatch and drips down your neck when you are standing at the galley sink. We place towels and sponges to catch the drips, but basically we are more or less resigned to the drips. After seeing the wonderful and for us affordable work done by the carpenteros de navale last weekend, I regret we had not found these guys earlier and had them address quite a number of wood issues. Maybe we shall have to go back to Ecuador once more.

By 1630, several of the rain squalls have been left behind us. It is still cloudy, but brighter now ahead. The wind, however, is now out of the NW. We hoist our working sails and continue due north closehauled at a lively pace. The sun appears briefly to the W in order to set behind some ragged cloud just after 1800, giving us only a brief peek at her just before she dives into the sea. Within fifteen minutes, it is pitch dark.

By 2000 even this NW wind has disappeared. If we had more patience, we would insist on sailing everything. But we both want to get north by Christmas so we can rendezvous with a few cruising friends. At midnight we still have 268 Nm to go. If this has been the Doldrums, we should be expecting NE Trade Winds soon. I wonder how we shall deal with those since the forecasts promise northerlies (i.e., noserlies) and short steep windwaves also from the north.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

We motor throughout the night, the cabin feeling very hot from the engine. Everything feels very tropical now, the water temperatures are surely higher than down off the Ecuadorian coast where the Humboldt Current cools everything off to the mid-70’s Fahrenheit.

Shortly after midnight, I see the first light in the distance and sit out for a while in the balmy night air in the cockpit to track it. I suspect it is a fishing boat. But eventually it turns out to be a large commercial ship travelling south parallel to us but about 6-8 miles away. We have our new masthead LED tri-colour light on and are carrying our excellent Luneburg-technology radar reflector. Since the Colombian coast and the little Malepelo Island offshore about 100 miles are reputed to be somewhat dangerous, I am tempted to run without lights, however.

By dawn at around 0600 this morning, there is still a lot of flying light rain in the air, the winds have picked up from the north and, after a calm night of smooth motorsailing, the waves with it. I guess we are through the ITCZ now. Vilisar is pitching straight into the waves and throwing spray out to the sides of her broad bow. She is trying to bury her two bower anchors, so far fortunately without success. But the wind does blow some spray back even as far as the cockpit from time to time. These waves are not really that high, but they are steep and at short intervals of under 5 seconds. The Lister diesel doesn’t like all this at all and begins to overheat. I cut back the rpms and consider the options while the wind continues to build and the waves too. They are showing small whitecaps already.

We experiment with the sails. I tie a reef in the main and raise the staysail. It seems too windy already for the Yankee. The skies are clearing and, except for the noserlies, it promises to be a beautiful day. Puffy white clouds in front of us and black rain clouds behind us to the south. But, with 240 Nm still to go straight into the wind and swells, Isla del Rey and Panamá are looking farther and farther away. Tacking back and forth straight to windward for several days in these conditions seems like a horror trip.

Our first attempt didn’t work for us, so we pull up the Yankee as well. Not much improvement. With our new working sails, Vilisar can point up quite well. But if we try to go much to windward, i.e., towards our goal to the N, then Vilisar is soon uncomfortably plunging and rolling while her forward speed drops sharply. At a comfortable angle of sail we are heading nearly straight E, which doesn’t help much. The reef keeps Vilisar relatively upright and she is no longer dipping her lee caprail in the water.

Nevertheless, it all looks pretty futile. I debate heaving to and waiting to see if it becomes calmer and less windy at night. But even that means drifting back towards the Doldrums. We try motorsailing. This works to a degree. But it is heavy slogging and, of course, we still have the noisy and hot engine running. Things are beginning to look messy down below and it’s hard to keep one’s balance on deck. Handling headsails is trying, to say the least, and I wish once more that we had been able to afford a furling genoa. Getting headsails up, or worse, down, leads to bruised shins and sometimes a wrestling match. I still have not found a handy way of getting the jib down without going right forward to the bowsprit and pulling. This scares the hell out of Kathleen. All my attempts at downhauls have failed so far. We are both tired and our sleep disturbed still by the watchkeeping duties. With the boat held over, with me out on the foredeck or the bowsprit, with the waves building, Kathleen rapidly feels overwhelmed and would just like to head below. Soon we are shouting at each other. It’s all a little much. So, this is the cruising life! Are we having fun yet?

Trying to get north on a port tack, we succeed only in getting closer to the Colombian coast. It’s still a hundred miles away, but still. We then lay Vilisar over on a starboard tack hoping that the winds have some easterly component to them, as of course NE Trades should have. This provides no respite from the plunging but we are in fact now able to make more distance to the good, i.e., to the north. We seem to be sailing NW.

After hours in the cockpit tending the tiller and the Navico tiller pilot as well as trying to avoid seasickness, Kathleen suggests that we should just abandon plans to reach Las Perlas Islands at all. Since it would mean now tacking straight to wind for two hundred nautical miles first to the NW and then the same distance E back to Las Perlas, and since the NW tack will take us almost to Western Panamá or Costa Rica anyway, why don’t we just go there instead and work our gunkholing way to the east towards Panamá City from there?

Clever girl! That’s the answer! We might still have to tack a bit to get up, say, to Isla Coiba or Boca Chica, where we spent last year’s sailing season, it has to be a better bet than Las Perlas now. We can still go back to Plan A if it becomes feasible.

With that settled, I go below. I am totally knackered from all this sail-handling and I have not eaten anything but fruit all day. I fall asleep instantly on the port berth, a nice breeze coming in over me from the skylight. For once I am not cursing the heat of the Lister engine.


At dusk the wind drops and the waves begin to lie down. By 2000 we are motoring along beautifully without too much pitching and crashing. As the night progresses, the rain squalls clear away and, in the ink-black sky the stars come out in their millions. This is the good part of sailing. Of course, Lister is still making its noise and heat down below. I wear my earplugs. Once or twice we see large freighters but we can keep well clear of them.

The engine seems to be running quite a lot hotter than normal and the oil pressure a little lower. I decide to check the oil level and shut the engine down in the calm seas. What a relief the silence is. I add a litre of oil, which seems to bring the levels up to the top line on the stick. When I go to start it, nothing happens. I get an uneasy, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Plenty of juice to turn the engine, but it doesn’t catch. In the past, if the engine was quite hot and you throttled back too much, the engine would sometimes stall unexpectedly. Maybe this has to do with that phenomenon. I let it cool off some more and try it repeatedly with the engine decompressed and compressing only once the flywheel is going. Finally, it catches, or at least one or two of the cylinders catch. I let the engine run a moderate speed for a few minutes and then let in the clutch to get us moving again, the engine almost dies. Each time we let in the clutch the same thing happens. But, finally – Praise the Lord! - it begins to function kinda normally. Maybe the fuel filters are clogged. That was cause back when we were stepping the mast. Whenever you put the engine under load it died or tried to die. In neutral it was all right. That turned out to be the result of fuel filters being so clogged from the corrosion and rust in the tanks. It also led to replacing both steel fuel tanks and replacing the fuel filters. So, it surely can’t be the fuel or the fuel filters again, can it?

In the end we get moving again though I feel that the engine is really not putting out its full power. This will trouble me now as we head off into the boonies. At least it is not running so hot.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The night was uneventful, thank goodness. Whereas yesterday morning the seas and wind had already built up by 0700, this morning remains calm and there is no breeze whatsoever until about 0830. After discussing, we decide to go back to Plan A, i.e., Islas las Perlas. They are 190 Nm to the NNE whereas Isla Coiba in Western Panamá is now only 150 Nm. The Perlas are about 120 NM farther north and therefore much closer to Panamá City to the airport from where Kathleen flies in January. She took the bus from David in Western Panamá last year to catch her flight to Germany; that involved an overnight bus ride to the airport. Boca Chica was nice and so is Western Panamá generally. But it was very boring for me, and inconvenient to boot given that I had to make my way to David to keep renewing my shoreman’s card. We decide to motor, motorsail or sail for the moment in as northerly a direction as possible, edging more east to pick up a northerly current that flows up into the Bay of Panamá. If the wind and waves become like yesterday again, we shall either heave to and wait until nightfall or tack back toward Western Panamá.

There are a lot or rain squalls around this morning, though they bypass us. I wouldn’t mind a good downpour to get the crystallised salt off everything on deck and on the sails. The whole boat glistens from the water that the salt crystals hold until the sun dries them up. Then the boat just looks grey.

We have now had several serious and negative discussions about “the cruising life”. We both like gunkholing and generally the simple focus of life on a boat. But sometimes this boat gets a bit much for me in heavy weather, mainly the fact that all the headsails are hanked and all the halyards are handled from the foot of the mast, i.e., also on the foredeck. We should have got a furling rig, which could be operated from the cockpit. Lots of little things are still in need of rejuvenation or replacement or improvement. For example, under the navigation table, there is a very broad but shallow chart drawer and below that, three pairs of wooden drawers. Inside, they reach way, way back to the stringers, in the case of the top (chart) drawer, a long way indeed. These yellow cedar drawers have been handy for stowage, in fact they are the only drawers we have aboard other than the little cutlery drawers in the galley opposite. When the boat is heeled over to starboard, however, the contents all slide down and back, sometimes falling out of the drawer at the back, jamming things up so you cannot get the drawer open at all. One drawer could not be opened until after a lot of fiddling, which I might simply have ignored until after arrival, But, the item I was after was essential during the trip. Then, later, it couldn’t be closed again at all because something else had fallen out behind; in this case a game of Yahtzee. All this is frustrating at the best of times, but especially so at night while the sea is bouncing, you are exhausted and hardly able to deal with one more frustration. Anyway, whatever the task, you can count on first having to put three other things to right before you can even begin. Talk about frustrating. The drawers are made of cedar, a softwood that tends to swell if it gets wet, and, because it is soft, the constant opening and closing of the drawers over the years had led to the drawers jamming too. “Jammy drawers” takes on a whole new meaning in this context.

At Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, we did a lot of projects. But there are still lots more: better handholds for security in the cockpit; some cover from rain and sun whilst in the cockpit; more handholds for moving about in the cabin; ratlines; better stowage arrangements in the forecastle, especially for foodstuffs on long voyages; better lifelines or life-rails. The list is never-ending.

If I had had more time and money, I would have had the shipwrights in Manta look at a lot of other things, including the leaks for the deck into the cabin; the coverboard is under the caprail and lets in water down the inside of the hull. I have wanted to remove the caprails for some time and get a good look under there since there is some red staining of the topsides from under there. (This could be from the red cedar or from corroding fasteners, but either way ….). I would have had them save the facades of the drawers perhaps, but replace the insides with harder wood. Re-caulking the coverboard and perhaps the deck planking near the coachhouse, too.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Here we are, hove-to some 170 Nm nearly due south of our target, Isla del Rey. At dawn when I was awakened from my exhausted sleep to take my watch, the NE wind had strengthened and the waves had become bigger. We are on a port tack and have been using only the mainsail. It was definitely time to put a reef into the sail because we were racing along in the dark, the boat heeled over way too much with green water sloshing down the starboard side-deck. Some bilge water is also swirling around inside the boat and slopping up under the nav table drawers. After taking over, I waken Kathleen again, who had just fallen into her heavy sleep. It takes a minute or two for her to realise what’s going on. “We have to take a reef in the mainsail”, I tell her. “Oh, no!” she says spontaneously. I laugh but get little response. I know exactly what she means.

Beforehand, however, the prize for this night of fun-filled cruising goes to the Navico tiller pilot. Until about 0230 this little beggar has been performing faultlessly. But, I guess the constant spray and tropical rain has reached its brain because, after re-setting it repeatedly on a course and going below, it starts doing its own thing. Suddenly an alarm signal sounds above the engine noise. We rush into the cockpit and find ourselves now heading S instead of NE. It is rather like dealing with Hal, the computer in 2001; A Space Odyssey. We try over and over again to set it until, to top it all off, the wooden arm breaks, a part of the story best left untold. We finally give up on it, remove the tiller pilot and take it below, all the while realising what life without Navico will mean - it means sitting in the cockpit to steer whenever we are motoring, something that is boring and trying and that is now going to compose a major part of this passage. We are already tired.

It is at this point that I decide we have had enough self-flagellation for one night and decide to heave to. Heaving to means stopping in the water where you are, frequently backing a head sail towards the wind and pushing the tiller down so that the boat wants to round up. The two forces generally frustrate each other and one should ideally wind up with the bow of your boat pointing 45-50 degrees off the wind and gently rising and falling on the waves. You will tend to drift sideways downwind somewhat whilst simultaneously forereaching a bit across the wind. I have tried various sail arrangements for heaving to and have found that Vilisar, a cutter whose mast is slightly farther astern than, say, on a sloop, heaves to very nicely, thank you, with just a reefed mainsail and the tiller lashed down. So, there’s no need to deal with headsails, thank goodness. One less thing to do on the foredeck!

Before attempting this manoeuvre, we first sit together out in the cockpit and talk through the whole procedure in advance: use the engine to bring the boat into the wind; sheet in the mainsail amidships; then I go forward to the mast; I take up slack on the topping lift, which will lift the aft end of the boom and take strain off the sail; then drop the mainsail far enough that I can snag the first reefing grommet with the reefing hook; then hike up the sail again until it is taut; sheet in the reefing pennants that gather the sail at the aft end of the boom down to the boom and then sheet them off; possibly tidying up by tying all the reefing ties. The procedure goes without a hitch this morning. Maybe practice does make perfect. The sail looks rather better now than the pile of laundry it so often appeared when I have attempted reefing in the past.

As soon as we are hove to – like, almost instantly! -, the pounding of the boat into the oncoming waves stops. It is like getting off a rollercoaster or out of a bumper-car. Vilisar rides calmly and ladylike up and down, variously pointing more into the wind and then falling off. We sit in the cockpit for a bit enjoying the respite and tidying up around us. It is 0710 and the sun is trying to squeak up behind clouds over to the east. No land in sight. Kathleen’s nerves are frazzled: she gets overwhelmed by these activities and also fears that I may be injured or fall overboard. She once more raises, rather insistently this time, the issue of better handholds in the cockpit for the helmsman. A few minutes later, she goes below and puts on the espresso.

All night long we have motored with a steadying mainsail trying to get to windward. At one point I think the engine is sick since it is only putting out 2 knots of forward motion. Then I realise, in addition to wind and waves, we must still be in the grips of the strong south-flowing current coming out of the Golf of Panamá past Punta Mala. Moreover, I have been pushing the boat too directly into the very steep and short waves. Lister doesn’t like this one bit and tends rather to overheat to show his dislike. We never seem to be getting more than about 2 knots and the action of pitching and rolling to windward is distinctly uncomfortable if you aren’t in your berth. We both have lee cloths rigged to keep us in bed once we get into it. The spray produced when we collide with a steep wave (all of them) is blowing back and through the skylight into the cabin, so it has to be shut. The overheating engine is making the cabin very hot and clammy. That damned engine is too damned hot and too loud! I shove in my earplugs.

So, as I was saying, it is by and large AAA cruise-ship conditions all round. A rather trying and unpleasant night, made the more useless by the fact that, after hours of tacking to the ENE, we have barely made any ground good towards out goal.

Let’s face it, this type of windward passage-making is always hard slogging, and you do not want to be doing this very often. The discomfort and the scary bits have been enough to get a lively discussion going amongst the semi-mutinous crew in the hove-to Vilisar about selling her and swallowing the anchor. I am coming to the conclusion that this sort of thing is for younger guys. The various labour-saving or safety items that might make life more attractive on board have so far been beyond our means - e.g. furling headsails, improved anchor winch, life rails, handholds in the cockpit, A.I.S., radar, etc. Even a quieter and cooler diesel engine would be nice.

But even then, no matter how you cut it and dice it, windward passages are a slog.

The Trade Winds continue to increase slightly from the NE and a series of squalls pass over us, albeit with not too much rain. I have patched the deck with two-part epoxy putty where I think the rainwater might have been coming in - where the cabin side meets the deck planking. There is some leaking still but not as severe now, I try to convince myself. We agree to stay hove to until the waves flatten and the wind drops. This will probably take all day. The boats points up well, but if the wind slackens and fails to keep the reefed-in mainsail filled, the heavy wooden boom slats back and forth as the boat rolls in the swells. This isn’t much of a problem for the most part because the wind is strong enough. The slatting is ten times more disturbing down below.

The future of the boat and our future travel plans, not to mention our whole lifestyle, the role alternatively of work and music, etc, all get a real airing down below. At the start of every passage we have this conversation. What the hell are we doing on a boat? Nobody likes this sort of passage. But how can you avoid passages like this? Kathleen fears the Pacific crossing will be like this and is horrified. We play through all the alternative boat and non-boat strategies. As usual this is somewhat fruitless and we agree to leave the subject alone at least until we are in Las Perlas and are rested and cleaned up and better fed.

I go on deck to deal with the wire mousings on shackles at the deck level below the jibsail and the staysail. Not only have they scratched my shins badly while I wrestle headsails while standing on the bowsprit shrouds, but the wire mousings have also been responsible, I think, for several small parallel tears in our new Yankee. I can either bend the mouse-ends over and tape them flat. Or, I can replace them with small, black, plastic pipe ties, something recommended by another cruiser. But how annoying! Our new red sails! The tear is not critical and I shall leave it until Las Perlas to put a patch on it. The cheek of it! If we ever manage to get there, goes without saying.

We spend a lot of time trying to identify the various currents running into and out of the Golf of Panamá. The northbound current is far closer to the Columbian coast then we like. But if we stay too far out we get caught up by the southbound current from Panamá City. The northbound current can reach 3 knots when it swirls around Las Perlas. We make slightly better northings if we go on a starboard tack (and therefore to the NW than on a port tack where we have trouble maintaining even E), but the northbound current we want is to the east of us and the southbound current past Punto Malo that we definitely do not want is to the west of us. Is anybody following this? We zig towards the Colombian coast and hope we can find the northbound current.

This heaving to is a very welcome skill. When you get too tired or you need to warm up some food, it is no trick whatsoever to heave to. This time it is turning into a rest day. There is now little chance of us making the Christmas rendezvous at Isla del Rey anyway, so we might as well relax. We plan to start again when the wind and waves drop towards early evening. Then we can steam straight ahead.

Christmas Eve, 24 December 2008

We feel rested and eager to get started last evening as, true to expectations, the waters become flatter and the wind drops. Ah, ha! Just what Captain Ronnie, Boy Spot-welding King of the World; Captain Canada, predicted (for a change)! The evening skies are partly cloudy and some of them look mildly squally. But it is warm as we switch on the engine and start driving straight towards Waypoint 012, i.e., Isla del Rey about 90 Nm directly to windward (of course). Fortunately for the moment, it is only ‘breezeward’ and soon Vilisar is running along under power with her reefed-down red mainsail as a stabiliser.

We set the watches. It promises to be a quiet night even though we physically have to steer, Navico having packed it in. At dawn this morning I did a little onboard carpentry and fashioned a new arm for the tiller pilot. Quite proud of myself, really. All the materials and tools to hand. But, the electronics are buggered, I reckon.

Christmas Day, Thursday, 25 December 2008

During my 0300-0600 I come on deck to find the sky very dark and squalls all around. Oh! Not again! This is getting very tiresome! Kathleen says the calm seas ended abruptly an hour or so earlier and now the wind is back. On the nose, of course. Our speed is down again as the waves build up. Even by 0400 my head is falling off my neck with tiredness despite the fact that the wind is quite chilly. I dart below to get my fleece jacket.

At 0500, I throttle back the engine, heave to on a starboard tack and then go below to shut the Lister down. It is asking too much to grind away when one is exhausted and we are not going to make it to Isla del Rey for Christmas anyway. Might as well lighten the punishment and get some sleep. We are not eating properly and are getting very tired. Not good.

All morning we snooze and eat some breakfast and various snacks. A couple of cups of espresso, our vitamins and our salt tablets make us both feel a lot better. We even get out the songbooks and sing Christmas carols. I am trying to remember the full text of Three Kings From Orient Lands Afar (Drei Koen’gen) by Peter Cornelius. Unfortunately, I have learned it in both German and English and now everything is a salad in my brain. But the tune haunts me. We’ve done our bit for Christmas, even though it’s a far cry from the intensive months of preparation that church musicians do every year.

We do not have measuring gauges for the fuel tanks. Tapping on them gives some idea of fuel levels, but it’s not very accurate. You have to get out the steel metre stick that came with the boat, open the flush-deck bronze filling holes and plumb the depths. Our estimates are a little “soft” since we have new tanks that are somewhat smaller than the old ones. We are just not sure how much we might still have. The old ones together would hold over 75 U.S. gallons. I reckon we might have lost 5 gallons on fuel capacity. We have been motoring a lot and we arevslightly worried that we might run out at a very inopportune moment.

By noon the sea has flattened to next to nothing. A large covered fishing panga passes us out of curiosity and at a distance before steaming off to the W. I lug the two 20-litre, plastic jerry-jugs back from their stowage next to the mast, and we carefully siphon roughly five gallons into each tank. This raises the level by about 1-2 inches only. But the tanks appear now to be at least half full. That should suffice us for a while. I have another 15 gallons inconveniently stowed in the lazarette hatch. The whole process of siphoning makes very little mess, happily, and the new tie-downs holding the water and fuel jugs on deck are working really well, though they sometimes catch the halyards when they are in a ball on the deck. Will tape over the handles.

At 1330 we add oil to the engine again and start motoring again. The seas are nice and calm now so we make some good time. We are both sure we are now being borne along by the Equatorial Counter-Current that steams up the east side of the Golfo de Panamá. Great! This makes it a really nice (Christmas) day. A flock of Storm Petrels swarms us playfully for hours, the birds, like naval air cadets practising carrier landings, keep making passes. Some – maybe one in twenty attempts - even actually land on the coach roof or the deck. It’s the same kind of controlled crash-landing that navy pilots do each time. They (the birds) look rather like black and white boobies with the same kind of webbed feet and goony-bird beaks but I cannot find the exact match in the bird book. The freshly-landed sit around on the boat for a few minutes not too disturbed by humans. But, after a minute or two, the call of the other play-birds is apparently too much to resist, and off they go again. Just at dusk, a group of dolphins swim around the boat.

The sun sets into a hazy and cloudy sky. To the NW squalls are building again. We are now well rested and fed and ready for most anything. Moreover, we have been making miles. Without radar, we do not want to approach the islands in the dark. At dark we are only about 32 Nm short of Isla del Rey. When we are 22 Nm short of the island at around 2115, we heave to and shut down the hot engine. There are a few lights around in the distance; fishing boats likely since we are too far away from either the mainland or the islands. We are not standing watch as we have seen no shipping whatsoever all day and the Panamá Canal approaches are well to the west of us. But, there is very little wind and the boom crashes and slats around from time to time. Nevertheless, we both turn in and fall into a very deep sleep.

Merry Christmas!

Boxing Day, Friday, 26 December 2008

At around 0500, the noise of the boom drags me out of the depths of sleep. I stagger to the companionway and look around. Somehow the boat has gybed around and I go to the cockpit to put the helm on the other side and lash everything down. I see several bright lights within a five mile radius. The fishing boats are back, I guess; they probably took Christmas off and now are back at work. Nets are being set out that are marked by flashing buoys.

Kathleen is surfacing again too. By 0615 we are off again. The sea is still relatively calm so we can make good time. We have drifted about 5 miles W in the night and a mile or two N. The ocean current that sweeps into the Golf of Panamá here tends to turn W at Bahía San Miguel (off to our right) and make a big circle around the Golfo. With only 18 Nm to go to the tip of Isla del Rey, it is not long before we start seeing humps of blue land rising out of the far horizon and eventually we can make out Isla del Rey itself. Once we reach the approach waypoint, we still have a few miles to travel up the inside to Rio Cacique, where we might still meet some of the boats from our “Christmas rendezvous” That would be nice, but no longer essential.

Discussions of future plans is revived again over strong coffee in the cockpit. Clearly we are (again) at a critical juncture in our lives. The cruising life has been very interesting and offers a lot of what we want. But, clearly also, the cruising life does not contain enough of the other things we want. So, we are perhaps in a mood for some sort of change, the details of which are still fuzzy but which involve fulfilling work, music, etc.

Goethe said once that commitment is the thing. Once you commit to something some sort of spiritual element enters the picture and things begin to work towards your goal. At some point we shall therefore have to stop just listing pros and cons and make a decision realising that no decision is one-hundred percent. That’s just life. Like everything else, a life is made up of good and bad things (windward passages?). The trick is to make as much of it good as the circumstances permit.


We arrive at the waypoint south of Isla del Rey at about 1030, but still need to get up the side of the island to the anchorage at Rio Cacique. A southerly zephyr springs up and we decide to at least sail the final 6 miles. After all the work of getting the sails up, we cruise along in the bright midday sunshine, so intensive after Bahía de Caráquez’s marine haze, at about 3.5 knots until, an hour later the breeze vanishes again and we are back to using the engine. This time we drop and furl all the sails and just motor along.

To our surprise we are suddenly hailed on VHF Ch. 16 by Hermi on S/V Iwa. They have spotted us as they are leaving the anchorage to sail to Isla Espiritu Santo. We chat with her for a few minutes and catch up on various other cruising boats. She will spread the word on the Pan Pacific (ham) Net that we have arrived. It turns out, not surprisingly, that we are almost the only cruising boat without Single Side-band radio or ham.

By 1230 we have made it. The anchor is down in 27 feet of lovely clear water. On the way in we talk in passing to Theresa and Rob of S/V Yohela, Seattle, whom we had met in Bahía. There are five boats plus Vilisar now in the roomy anchorage, all of whom except one we already know. Although we are suddenly overcome with fatigue, I insist that we first get the dinghy in the water, the sails covered and the awning rigged. We do get the dinghy launched and then the swim ladder. The water is too tempting however, and we are soon stripped off and diving in. Fantastic! Swimming wasn’t on the agenda in Ecuador. The air too cool there and the river water too muddy. Any strength I had left is drained from me completely. I suddenly can hardly stand on my own two feet. I sprawl on the berth below. It is hot but I need some food and some rest.

Our total voyage has been 8 days and 5 hours, most of it to windward. A hard slog during which we threatened to sell the boat three times and sink her twice, not to mention totally re-structure our “lifestyle”. In the evening, after a comfort meal of frittata, i.e., fried potatoes, onions and garlic with beaten eggs to set them, we row over to Theresa and Rob of S/V Yeholah for drinks and a chat and to send out emails to family that we have arrived safely. By 2000 Kathleen is sound asleep on the starboard berth and I am turning out the light.

Bahía de Caraquéz, Ecuador, Sunday, 14 December 2008

It’s Sunday afternoon. Since four o’clock this morning, Vilisar has been anchored back in roughly the same spot she left at 0315 on Friday morning last. The early hours were chosen because this past weekend had the highest tides of the year.

We were about to undertake something completely new for us: in all cold blood we were going to motor over to a nearby beach and go forward slowly on the engine until the keel touches. UNTIL THE KEEL TOUCHES? Not something boaters normally care to do except under very controlled circumstances. The plan today is to drop a 20-pound Danforth anchor into the river mud at a slightly up-current angle to prevent the swells from surging us farther up the beach than we might like, and then to tie the bow off to the hand railing along the Malecón sidewalk, which should keep the boat from backing out into the river again.

Our Chilean friend Julio (S/V Pancho) shows up in the dark in his inflatable just after 0300 and accompanies us over towards the beach. Instead of dropping the anchor ourselves and therefore having one more activity to carry out just when things are most critical – not to mention that we might drop the anchor too soon and find that we have run out of anchor rode at the wrong moment - Julio first runs the kedge Danforth out to stern after we have truly arrived at and touched the sloping, shallow-water sand. About 25 -30 metres ahead of Vilisar’s bow the high-tide waves are surging and splashing up along the sea wall. Julio also takes our light bow line towards shore, threads it through the spliced eye of the heavier rope that I have tied in advance to the Malecón railing there and motors it back to Vilisar. I secure it to a mast winch and take up most of the slack. Although she is jerking round in the swirling waters like a racehorse pulling at her halter, Vilisar is now parked.

The beach is not totally protected and there is a lot of high-tide surge. When the yacht’s bottom is constantly bumping, sometimes quite hard, on the bottom, all my instincts are in revolt. What on earth are we doing here? I try to calm myself. The tide doesn’t fall very fast at the beginning, so this phase could last for a while. And, after all, we’ve been on tidal grids plenty of times. Since Vilisar can actually stand on her own keel if the standing is solid and level, the only unruly thought that keeps plaguing me is whether the vessel might actually decide not to lean over, i.e., decide to remain vertical until the water drops and the retreating water washes the sand out from under her and then, then decide to fall over. Otherwise, I feel quite confident that the beaching part of the operation can be done.

With the engine shut down, it doesn’t seem quiet at all. There is still lots of noise from the swells slapping against the sea wall and the bumping as we bounce on the sandy bottom. I start arranging the filled water jugs along the starboard side deck and even move the heavy old satchel life-raft to that side as well. These items add another 200 pounds. Julio ties his inflatable to Vilisar while he and I sit on the cabin to lend our weight as well. Kathy crawls back into the starboard berth below us to catch a few more winks. The whole point is to give the maestros carpenteros de navale (shipwrights) a chance to inspect Vilisar’s wormshoe after daylight and to decide whether they actually handle the work and to quote us a price.

Maestro Lister Rodriquez, the man with whom three weeks ago we had arranged the inspection trip, is a short barrel of a man with merry albeit somewhat red eyes. Like the other men working around the beach shipyard in Manta (see blog “Building boats on beaches from November 2008), he looks like he might be indigena. He comes strongly recommended by another maestro at the beach-shipyard in Manta; of course, we don’t know anything about that guy either.

Wacho has been convinced that the whole idea of hiring a shipwright from Manta to repair Vilisar’s wormshoe on a beach in Bahía qualifies one a priori for the loony bin. Just the idea of laying a perfectly seaworthy sailboat over onto its side bothers him a lot, I have noticed. “What if the engine falls off its mounts? What if all the fuel leaks out? What if the battery acid leaks?” He leaves little doubt that he is sure nothing good can come of it. I persist. To his credit, once the decision has been made, he never carps or goes back over the decision and certainly never hands out any told-you-so’s. But I know he is nervous.

Maestro Lister agreed back then to come over to Bahía de Caráquez for a look-see whenever we thought we could get Vilisar up on a beach. This mid-December weekend promises excellent tides for our purposes. I just hope he can do the work this same weekend, since our visas run out on Wednesday. We can’t have him wait until January.

Our job is just to be sure that Vilisar lies down now and that she does not attempt something cheeky like trying to stand upright on the flat part of its keel. I have never careened a yacht; in fact, none of the cruisers amongst the 40 or so boats here had ever careened a boat either, although some answered my enquiry by saying, “Not voluntarily.” So, we are on our own. My unease for the past few days is perhaps not as bad as our first time on a tidal grid back in 2002 in Wrangell, Alaska, with its 23-foot tidal differences and a lot of horror stories whispered in advance into our ears about what happens when a boat tips over at the wrong moment. This is sure to be easier and we have a lot more experience now. Just the normal sort of tension.

So, here we are at last. With the combined weight of water jugs, the life-raft and three persons, the boat slowly begins to lean heavily to starboard after about two hours. Then the angle increases faster and faster until it becomes almost impossible to climb back up the bridge and let oneself down into the cabin. You can only do it by stepping on top of the galley stove. Julio and I take to our dinghies and drift around the boat in the dark on the little swells until it’s daylight, shortly before 0600. A strip of dry beach appears and grows larger. The air is warm, but there is unusually-heavy moisture in the air with a cloying tropical feel about it. So, feeling damp and short of sleep, it feels chilly on bare arms and legs. I wish I had thought to bring a jacket with me off the boat.

Around 0630, Maestro Lister shows up along with Wacho and another even more indigenous-looking man, who was introduced the evening before as Maestro Angel. The two carpenteros walk with their hands in their pockets, rolling gently from side to side like sailors themselves. The two arrived by bus last night from Manta. We met for dinner at a street café and got rooms for them at Hotel Bahía across from Puerto Amistad. The two guys are handling the project. Vilisar is leaning but not yet sufficiently for them to inspect the wormshoe, so Wacho takes them off to the mercado to get them a hearty breakfast.

An hour later they are back. They get right to work, poking and pulling at the keel-shoe, talking softly the while back and forth. The ball-peen hammer comes out and so does the measuring tape. Both Julio and Wacho seem rather too sceptical to me. They don’t seem that convinced by the two. Maybe it’s because possibly they are indigenas or partly because their clothes look rather old and beat-up. I know Wacho isn’t a true believer anyway, and Julio is a retired chief inspector detective so he’s sceptical by training. They don’t intrude, however, and I try to ignore them for the moment.

After an hour Lister and Angel, the two carpenters, tell us without any salesmanship or apparent bravado that they can definitely handle the work and can start that night if we can arrange lighting. We discuss methods and materials. There will be a problem of course about getting a single plank wide enough to fabricate a wormshoe in one piece, they say, but they will try (standard planks are 8 inches wide and they need about 14 inches at the widest). They explain how they are going to do the work, but their accents, speed of speaking and my nervousness means I don’t really understand everything. But, they know we want the project completed as quickly as possible: not only will the tides start to get less attractive, but we are also supposed to leave the country by Wednesday or Thursday.

About mid-morning, the maestros carpenteros pile into Wacho’s truck, Babushka, and head off to Manta to buy the materials. Kathy has earlier climbed awkwardly out of the cabin. Now she walks up the beach to the Malecón to work online on shore. Julio has gone back to bed. I stay with the boat so no unwelcome visitor decides to walk off with things, although I am feeling the lack of sleep. From the beach, Vilisar looks very strange indeed laid over so far. The water never actually reached above the caprail, but it was nerve-wracking all the same.

Left alone, I fret about the fact that there is water inside the boat. Where can that have come from? Has sea water leaked into the boat from somewhere and, if so, from where? This is important because we heel over enough to get water up over the caprail at times and I should hate to have to pump constantly. Kathleen woke up from her early-morning nap this morning thinking she was perspiring badly only to discover that her bed was lying in a big puddle that had gathered in the lowest part of the boat. Where the hell could that have come from?

I work my way uphill to the companionway hatch and then down into the cabin. I dip my finger in the water and taste it. It is pretty much fresh water, I think, so it is probably our drinking water. Unfortunately there is also a small amount of bilge oil and diesel as well. But how did the fresh water leak out of the tank or tanks, I wonder? The sponge mattress is sopping and Kathleen’s clothes stored behind the seat are nearly floating. I wonder if the papers in the drawers have all slid back and down are perhaps now soaking as well. Can’t pull the drawers vertically upwards to take a peek. The British Admiralty pilot books that were being stored under the mattress are soggy and heavy with water too. I wonder if they can ever be dried out. I leave everything for now and work my way back out to the beach, increasingly wishing I could find a quiet place for a siesta.

Pulling off your shoes

By 1500 on Friday the tide is back up and Vilisar is bouncing around again. The carpenteros and Wacho get back from Manta with their supplies shortly before dark. Lister and Angel have said that they will start working that very evening at about 1900 if we can provide lights. They would expect to be finished by Saturday night. Wacho is organising a power generator for electricity.

Lister and Angel have arrived with two extra helpers who weren’t with them this morning, Nixon and Eduardo. Their first job is to dig a trench to free up the keel and expose the wormshoe. In half an hour Nixon and Eduardo have dug down a couple of feet and are throwing bucketsful of water out towards the empty beach, which in the meantime has become much, much wider.

Soon the carpenters, standing in the watery trench, are prying at the old, worm-eaten zapata (i.e., shoe) and breaking it off in soggy pieces. This is perhaps the first time in nearly forty years that the wormshoe has been removed. I suppose it was put on when George Friend first laid the fir keel in that barn in Victoria around 1970. The shoe is fastened to both the wooden keel and the 7,500-pound, bolted-on weight. Square, three-inch copper or bronze boat nails were used; I rescue some for posterity’s sake. Hell, at the price of copper these days, I might be able to finance a new boat! There were also a few additional stainless-steel screws in the boards that were probably added at a later point when the wormshoe was getting loose.

The next step is to finish fashioning the actual worm-shoe. Wacho spent over three hundred dollars on materials in Manta. Right up there at the top of the list was the actual piece of wood. I have not been able to find the English for it; in Spanish they call it cuero zapo, whereby cuero translates as leather and zapo as chatty. Chatty leather? I must be missing something.
The new shoe-plank was sliced using a chain-saw off an 18-metre-long, squared-off log that is lying along with others at a timber-dealer’s sandlot at the beach in Manta. The new plank was then run through a planer, resulting in a board about 1.5 inches thick, maybe a little more. I wasn’t there at the time but Wacho said the cutting machines were giving off smoke because the wood is so hard. The plank was then shaped to fit the keel using a Stihl chain saw.

The dealer tells me on Monday when I go to look for myself (sorry, the camera battery was dead at the time, so no pictures) that an 18-metre cuero zapo log costs $2,500 or more. The logs, which come from farther north near Esmeraldas near the Colombian border, is a pale yellow and very straight-grained. The logs have lain in water for decades, which has hardened them. All keels on the wooden fishing trawlers being built in Manta start with cuero zapo. No worm can get through it and if you bump bottom, you don’t have to worry about it either.

Maestro Angel takes more measurements and then sets some dozen and a half drill holes in the plank laid out on the beach and counter-sinks them. The chain saw, a hand-held electric grinder and two handheld electric drills are the only concessions to modernity. The rest is all about hand tools. He shows me the 4- or 5-inch, stainless steel, hex-head screws they are going to use.

Wacho has borrowed an old generator, but cannot get it to work. Finally, he connects the household-type extension cords to the electrical wires at the base of the town’s lamp standard.

The bottom of the keel and all sides of the piece of lumber are soaked with some clear chemical which, Maestro Lister tells me while rolling his eyes, gusanos (shipworms) definitely do not like this stuff at all at all. I decide not to push him for details. Then the side of the lumber to the keel is liberally smeared with roofing tar (cemento asfalto) and, finally, with a grey epoxy-putty. The helpers carry the heavy board over to the two maestros, who are now sitting half in the water waiting to place it. Lister scolds his helper Eduardo for letting the water build up in the hole. Eduardo grabs a bucket and starts to bail again. All the work goes forward quietly with no hectic and no shouting at all. Like most of the indigenous people we have met here in Ecuador, they talk quietly and carefully with each other. Maestro Lister has a rough vocabulary, though, and my language skills, though unsuited to a parlour, have been expanded to a new dimension.

To press the board right up tight against the keel, small jacks are used. Pieces of wood have to be set in place at the right angle to get purchase. Once in place, Angel starts setting the stainless screws. Everybody has to work bent over to get at the keel. It takes a while, but finally the last screw is set and the board fits tightly to Vilisar’s slightly curving keel line.

While the setting of the screws is still going on, Maestro Lister takes up a small sledge hammer and a stainless steel caulking iron. Eduardo starts peeling off lengths of spun cotton that are purchase stuck to a long piece of white tape and Lister starts to work re-caulking a few planks. He has marked them as the boat was drying; any plank seam that did not dry at the same pace as the rest of the hull got attention. He also caulks around the lead keel, seams that have always worried me because shipworms could enter there. As he drives in the amazing amount of cotton, water runs out of the plank below. So he caulks that one too and then works his way up the stern.

When the new wormshoe has finally been attached, Lister starts caulking it too. As soon as he finishes each section, Nixon, who has been mixing the whole time, starts filling up the seams with masillo, i.e., two-part epoxy putty. By the time everything has been caulked and filled, the putty has hardened enough that the carpentero goes over everything with a grinder to smooth it off and one of the helpers starts applying anti-fouling paint wherever needed.

All of this has taken two tides plus the first low tide for the inspection on Friday morning. At the end of each tide, the men head off for the hotel and I usually see them sitting at some hole-in-the-wall place along the waterfront drinking beer. Maestro Lister especially likes his cervacitas. Kathleen and I have been sleeping at Hostal Coco Bongo; in my case, I catch a few hours on the sofa in the eating area. Unlike the carpenteros, we are not good at heavy physical work and broken sleep patterns and I feel pretty washed out.

We should come off the beach for the last time at about 0300 or 0400 on Sunday morning. This goes without a hitch. We simply winch our way backwards to the kedge anchor, which has meanwhile well and truly buried itself in the muck about 150 yards out, and then break it out with the mainsail winch in the cockpit.

Wacho has promised to drive the men back to Manta at 0800. They are all ready to go but Wacho sleeps through his alarm clock. He stayed at the beach, sometimes, with Julio, to make sure we don’t have trouble with malandos who wander around the town at night and might be interested to steal things. He must have been exhausted. When he finally arrives (after a cellphone call), we all go off to the Mercado to get an early-morning breakfast.

Then we talk takeles, as the Germans call it. There is not much negotiating to do because Maestro Lister quotes us $500 (which includes some supplies), price that seems very civilised indeed. Totally relieved, we hesitate and look pained. But we agree. As he climbs up into the back of the truck with the others, Lister tells them he got what they were asking for. Smiles all round. We shake hands, the men wish us a happy voyage and Lister tells us to bring Vilisar back in a year or so and he will strip all the paint off the hull and make it perfect for us. “Lindo barco”, he says.