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.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday, 26 April 2009

After the tropics you realise that flowering gardens are really products of our northern climates. Sure, there are flowers in the tropics. But, notwithstanding the pictures of dusky maidens with orchids or hibiscus blossoms in their hair which I carreid with me to the tropcis, I discovered that there are not really nearly as many flowers as I would have expected. Gardens in the tropics, the few that I have seen, are leafy with the aim of juxtaposing different leaf colours and patterns and shapes and achieving a feeling of coolness. Shade is the essence. Northern gardens go for flowers and flowering shrubs and try to have different floral displays on the go at all times from chilly springtime until late autumn.

After the damp, cold and gray German winter - none of your hard-blue prairie-winter skies over here - spring comes in like a floral bomb. After months wrapped in anoraks and sensible shoes, you can't wait to get outside. Think of al those German Romantic poets; they didn't write about coffee-houses or pubs. They gushed about the flowers and springtime and the forests. At the first stray spring sun rays in March, cafe tables start appearing outside on the pavement. And it's not just the smokers who are sitting out there, still warmly dressed, sucking up those first bright beams.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Friday, April 17, 2009

Starting today in Trinidad, President Obama of the U.S.A. will be meeting for several days with the leaders of Latin America. The summit comes after thirty years of manifestly failed neo-liberal economic policies, which have left Latin American countries and populations not only much worse off economically, but (until more reasonable lenders came along) had left most of the countries in a state of debt peonage to First-World lenders. Second, the summit comes after eight years of the retrogressive policies of the George W. Bush government. Latin American policy under the Republicans was more than normally determined by the Cuban exiles community in the political swing state of Florida. From most of Latin America’s point-of-view, the only good thing about the Bush government was that America’s attention was distracted by the Middle East. There were various Washington-inspired free-trade initiatives (now almost completely rejected by Latin America) and diverse sabre-rattling incidents such as the support for a coup against the democratically-elected Chávez in Venezuela, "Plan Columbia", or the recent re-activation after 65 years of the US Fourth Fleet as a means of reminding the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking colonials to the south that Washington still somehow regarded the Monroe Doctrine as valid.

Mr Obama’s promises to the Cubans in Florida during the campaign were not hopeful of change: he swore to keep the embargo on Cuba, for example. But, in anticipation of the summit in Trinidad this week and perhaps in a genuine attempt to unfreeze a situation that is now more than somewhat atavistic and has anyway never had any support in the rest of Latin America, he put a few Cuban bargaining chips on the table. Of course, Cuba will be the only Latin American country not represented at the summit, but once again Cuba will be the ghost at the banquet. Reasonable leaders such as President Lula da Silva of Brazil will be urging Obama to establish normal relations with Havana, start over again with Venezuela and for the U.S.A. to return in general to FDR’s “Good Neighbour Policy”, i.e., an arm’s-length policy of non-interference.

Not only is that perhaps the most reasonable approach to hemispheric relationships, it would also be a recognition that the United States is unlikely to be successful in the longer term with more gun-boat diplomacy and that globalisation as a default settings has perhaps now run its course. There are no armed threats to Aemrica hegemony from outside the region; over the last forty years the armed forces of most countries have been re-oriented with AMerican help to suppressing grass-root reform-movements. Already a majority of South Americans countries (measured by GDP or demographics) has turned to new though not particularly radical pathways to prosperity and national self-respect. The noisiest spokesman has perhaps been Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
But the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia support his policies if not his rhetoric. Of course, these other leaders have yet to be the targets of American-supported coup d’etats as has Chávez. But with Venezuelan (and to a degree also Chinese) funds, there are alternative sources of finance to the U.S.-dominated World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank. With the price of oil down, Venezuela is currently somewhat hamstrung. But the price of oil is nearly certain to rise again in the next two years.

Meanwhile, most Latin American countries have joined the march to political, economic and financial union along the lines of the European Union. In some ways the movement is still vestigial. But it is moving forward rapidly with a development bank already established and active talks proceeding on how integration should go forward. It is a project whose time has come. Certainly from almost any and every point of view, a Common Market of the South should be easier to achieve than the E.U. ever was. After all, there are far fewer languages in Latin America, far fewer cultural differences, and far fewer historical enmities in Latin America than in Europe. The historical conflicts everywhere south of the Rio Grande have always been less between countries and more between races or between economic and social classes. Eliminating poverty, achieving reasonably-egalitarian social forms and dealing long-term with the region’s indigenous peoples present for more hurdles. A political and economic union is a piece of cake by comparison.

There are lots of politica streams flowing. Venezuela's overt calls for politica nad economic unity and anti-imperialism is ony one. Brazil intends to be the leader of Latin America and is perhaps the best placed to be so. If changed the U.S.A. still also intends to play an important role. It also has its stalking horses and spoilers in the region: Mexico and Columbia being the main ones at present. Columbia, the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, seems for the moment solidly in DC’s column; the last federal election in Mexico, on the other hand, was a near-run thing for moderately conservative Calderon. That said, however, there is probably enough momentum amongst the remaining countries for integration. The US plan for Latin America involving free trade agreements and neo-liberal economic, social and political programmes in each country have been largely repudiated throughout Latin America. With the possible exception of Chile, conservative regimes haveyet to prove that trickle-down economics does anything more than impoverish the mass of the people, detroy the social fabric and reenforce the traditonal elites.

No doubt Mr Obama will be coming to the summit with a professed readiness to listen and his characteristic high-mindedness and lack of bombast. This will earn him great respect. He may not be completely up to speed on Latin America and he may still be getting advice from the Yesterday’s Men held over from the last administration. But he will win many friends just by laying aside the ignorance and arrogance that has so often characterised American policy in Latin America. The people and the governments there are enthusiastic about Obama and hopeful for new manners. Despite everything, they still have a residual admiration for that asepct of the U.S. that represents democratic, republican and egalitarian virtues. But for some of the same reasons, the people of Latin America also admire Fidel Castro.

With a heavy agenda for change back home, Mr. Obama seems to have decided to stick with many of Mr. Bush’s financial-crisis policies. Beyond a readiness to calm the waters, get rid of the most visible horrors perpetrated by the last president (kidnapping, “rendition”, torture and the like) and at least give the semblance of listening, U.S. foreign policies do not however seem destined to change all that much. Economically, the hope that American consumers would be able to buy products from Latin AMerica other than bananas was always an illusion as long as the US retained agricultural subsidies and various other invisible barriers to trade. Now that American purchasing power is being wiped out due in the main to failed fiscal and economic policies, and to an increasing inability to bororw overseas to pay for imported toys, Washington has even less attraction for Latin America.

Nevertheless, the best thing Mr Obama can do in Trinidad is to listen and start to think his own way through the issues. The issue of free trade with the U.S.A. is largely off the table. Latin America will increasingly go its own way economically and politically. But aside from the E.U., where else are they to turn, where else to they have the same cultural and emotional ties if not the U.S.A. Almost none of the recent developments in “pink” Latin America are threats to the U.S.A. and a supportive administration in Washington will make many friends.

Small steps towards normalisation of relations with Cuba are great opening bids. Now, instead of insulting and hectoring him, the U.S. president would be well-advised to find an opportunity this week to talk informally with Hugo Chávez; the overwhelmingly popular and democratically-elected president of an important oil-supplying nation has after all been offering open discussions without preconditions ever since Mr Obama won the election. In return however, the White House has even labelled Mr Chávez a dictator, an exporter of terror and part of the overall drug problem, all accusations that are unfounded and ridiculous as even the leaders of Brazil, Argentina and others have been telling the young president.

Here too in Latin America, it is time for change one can believe in. Mr Obama has an historic opportunity this week.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Saturday, 04 April 2009

All is doom and gloom on the news here. The Bundesrat, parliament’s upper house, has just approved a new law empowering the government to take over a company “if necessary”. It was designed for a huge and influential German mortgage bank that is co-owned by Italians and an America investor, but in the opinion of the Federal Government is too important economically to be allowed to fail, an argument that is becoming fairly common nowadays. The German machinery industry, a key exporter and economic indicator, has seen domestic and foreign order-intake shrink by half within only a few months. Here too, the car industry is in major kaka. All the car companies (Germany has lots of them: e.g. Daimler; Volkswagen; Porsche; BMW; Ford; GM/Opel) are having a tough time and dependent upon fiscal stimulants and begging for taxpayer handouts. Of the majors, GM’s European subsidiary, OPEL (which includes VAUXHALL in the UK), seems to be in the worst shape. It has been milked for years by the parent in Detroit, seems to have been in a semi-permanent depressed state in terms of new car models for years and hasn’t seen a profit since St. Peter was a corporal in the Jewish underground. The Canadian banks seem to be in rather better shape than elsewhere (why is that, do you suppose?). But the banks in Britain and America and possibly Germany, France, Italy and …… (your country’s name here) are basically kaput, and are only being kept afloat because the accountants agree not to make them reflect the real market values of their assets.

I am all in favour of taking over any bank that asks for taxpayer money, i.e., common shares in return for taxpayer bailout. Then you use the public’s votes to kick out the very managers and directors who conceived of and carried out the failed strategies, wipe out the old shareholders who permitted it all in the first place, install new managers (provided you can even find some that aren't tarnished by past excesses and who might have some basic experience in dealing with a down market), and sell off the shares later if and when the stock market recovers. That was the method in the thrifts catastrophe (the Resolution Trust) in the 1980s, until then possibly the biggest post-war financial meltdown in the USA. It paid off and, after a few years, the public actually made a bit of money on the deal. The same happened quite successfully in Sweden.

As it is, in this crisis some institutions are taken over (e.g. Fannie May), some banks were allowed to collapse (Lehman Bros.) and some banks just get money thrown at them with next to no strings in the now obviously vain hope that the recipient financial institutions will start lending again. As one could predict, the banks of course use the funds to repair their balance sheets and thereby protect the bamboozler-executives, the decorative outside board members and the gullible shareholders who together drove the lorry off the cliff in the first place or as chips in making huge trading profits in turbulent currency, commodity or bond markets. This is possible because first Bush and then Obama have hired the same “markets-will-always-regulate-themselves” gunslingers who were hugely instrumental in adjusting public policy to permit the financial crash in the first place (like Larry Summers or Tim Geithner, for example). These guys personally cashed in enormously when they moved from the Clinton White House, where they stick-handled the financial ‘liberalisation” acts through Congress, to head up the NY Fed or Citibank or, whatever. As is customary, they were just being “warehoused” (the slang actually used for politicos with between-administration offices on Wall Street or at large corporation like Dick Cheny’s Halliburton). These bozos get to make a lot of dough until they can find an empty office in D.C.

The banks, curiously enough, are now perhaps trying to do what they should have been doing all these years when they had left off traditional lending nearly altogether, i.e., they are assessing real risk before they lend. This is unfortunately a skill that, institutionally, they have by and large lost. They don’t have the middle-management-level risk evaluators any more. There is in fact no middle-management any more! There are no more local branch managers, for example, who might based on long local experience know who or what is a good or bad local risk. Retail lending, even mortgage lending is now done online using computer formulas. As for corporate lending (i.e., lending to industry), this has over the years become so unprofitable that an S&P-rated company could hardly these days be bothered to call a lending bank for a quote.

With corporate lending in the dumps, the “retail” banks (usually a division of the same bank) nevertheless found a way to bankroll those who could never in the past have been even remotely considered for a loan: you just package the bad loans with some good ones and sell them as collateralised instruments into the investment market. Blue chip or junk, the same approach was used. To remove any doubt and any need to assess risk inside the banks, you got a name rated AAA by S&P (not analysed by the bank, please note), somebody like A.I.G. for example, to endorse the package and pay them a fee for it. The rating agencies went along with all this rather than lose the business. It seems that, in the great name of profit, the rating agencies, the lenders, the directors, the shareholders and the insurance companies decided to ignore the real world and hope that the money would keep rolling in. All of this was built upon a real estate bubble that was built upon cheap money provided by the Federal Reserve. Nobody would or could throw on the brakes. Those who might have done so, were more interested in making money and hoping not to be the second or third to exit the market when the crunch came.

Not that companies really needed much cash anyway. For at least a generation, they have not actually been investing in anything much anyway. American industry has been in a “mature phase” for decades and less than expansionary. That means they had lots of cash, enough to either buy in their own shares or make acquisitions. Any expanding was being done by the Japanese, the Europeans and the Koreans or the Chinese, and they frequently had their own banks. All the while, corporate America, now too expensive but forced to compete with Third World workers, was moving production and know-how first to Alabama, then to Mexico and later to China, Thailand and Viet Nam. Corporate Europe started producing in Slovakia and Poland, still advantageous even after their integration into the E.U. in the course of this, companies usually just rolled the cost of a new plant onto an unsuspecting municipality, state or even a Third-World country. A sucker born every minute and three to take him in!

The Wall Street issuing houses (first stand-alone investment banks and, after 1999, frequently nationwide merged lending and investment behemoths) also increasingly made it possible for companies of any credit quality to by-pass loans and go directly to investors through the much cheaper bond or securitised-credit markets. Big corporations in addition also made their outside component suppliers, their trucking, shipping and leasing companies and even their employees provide them with financial resources. This last they did by making them “contribute” to downsizing under the threat of moving the jobs to Shanghai.

With the corporate lending business gone the way of all flesh and the system awash with petrol-dollars and cash-rich corporates, money centre banks and then, later, nearly all banks began dealing in abstract papers like mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), attaching if necessary an insurance-company default-guarantee to mask the fact that many of the securities were basically worse than junk. This was made possible when the Clinton government (Summers, Furmin, Geithner, et alia) introduced the two major banking ‘reforms’ which permitted banks to do lending and issuing under one roof while excluding a lot of specific financial activities from public supervision. “The market will always regulate itself”, was the mantra. Didn’t St. Adam Smith and his main disciple Milton Friedman say it? Of course, large companies and banks, as well as industries and even the economy itself might collapse first, although nobody wanted to talk about that. Lending bankers are traditionally supposed to have their ear in the market and be able to evaluate risks. With an AIG backstop-guarantee, who needed to do that? They have, indeed, essentially forgotten how to do evaluate risk. The top executives seem as incompetent as the car guys. Bankers are perhaps re-learning risk evaluation, but they are now forced to do so during the near-collapse of even blue chip companies and massive layoffs amongst their own staffs. Like consumers themselves, none of the current generation of bank managers has been through a real market downturn.

You don’t have to be an engineer to know when a car is a wreck. Likewise, you don’t have to be a financial wizard to understand that there are not a great number of good lending opportunities around these days. Banks won’t have much money to lend anyway for a couple of years: they are scared and are patching up their balance sheets. They won’t also know how much money they might have available to lend out anyway: will anybody be depositing or lending money to banks in the future? Will the petrol-dollars still be deposited with American banks?

But, assuming for the moment that there will be deposits, would you lend out to anything but perhaps a house-buyer with plenty of equity already and a low-priced object? I don’t think so. Let’s face it, banks are not at this point in history going to lend fresh money to such floating hulks as GM or Chrysler or even their suppliers or dealers or anybody associated with cars - after all the car companies don't really have any products people want or can afford. Potential buyers are the same people who are all maxed out on their credit cards and totally over-leveraged anyway. Anyway, handouts to GM and Chrysler mean that the American workers at Japanese or German subs in North America are unfairly treated; the taxpayer will be subsidising the lame ducks and depressing the prices of the products from healthy companies. At present potential car buyers are all thirty days away from financial insolvency, are threatened with layoffs, will become increasingly trapped far from any new jobs, in their over-priced and un-saleable houses in suburbs without public transport of any sort and the cost of heating oil rising again inexorably over the next few years. They are quite naturally either expecting to be laid off any day now, or are already in line at the unemployment-benefits office. Would you lend even a nickel to them under these circumstances? Of course not! To GM or Chrysler? Of course not!

Although it seems to be learning, the Administration, including the President, still apparently thinks the answer is to get asset values (by which I guess they mean house and share prices) back up to where they were a couple of years ago, and/or to get consumers simply to go back to spending and spending and spending, house speculators to get back into the market, and car companies to push gas-guzzling SUVs out the factory doors. But, simply tinkering with SUV engines is not likely to do the trick, friends, until at least another generation has passed and the terror of these financial days has faded. Will our grandchildren remember that the last decade has been largely built on sand?
On theh other hand, tThose who know how to take advantage of chaotic markets are busy every day online speculating on down-financial markets. Goldman Sachs is reporting huge profits on trading currencies, commodities and bonds. Given the circumstances, it seems like dancing on graves. But, nothing appeals to a trader like turbulence. The rest of us have no means to get into the game and no know-how to avoid a further catastrophe. Those still in work will trim their optional spending where they can (restaurants, miles driven, vacation spending etc.). Those out of work will do that and start plundering their savings (not an option for those whose wages have been pushed to the bottom over recent years and whose savings are essentially nil), look to unemployment benefits (if they exist for them), exploit their 18 credit cards (if not already maxed out) or even turn to charity (which will become increasingly unavailable as charitable giving nosedives). Shrinking down is going to be severely painful. As most people can all too easily do, imagine losing your job whilst you are carrying a mortgage - especially one higher than the market value of your house. You have kids in private schools, your stock portfolio has tanked and, situated far out of town on an “acreage” you own a McMansion that needs to be heated or air-conditioned.

We, ourselves, have been through all this years ago, so we have some experience. It’s not easy, I can assure you. Your income goes down much, much faster than your expenditures. Viewed dispassionately, our sailboat-home could now perhaps be seen as a floating survival capsule: it is paid off and, provided we don’t wreck it and we stick to sailing rather than motoring, we don't really have to spend much to operate it. The cheapest solution is to sail to an inexpensive harbour in a Third-World country and stay there for a while at anchor. Even motor-sailing will not be too expensive for the next couple of years, i.e., until the oil prices get back up to over $100 a barrel (In GM’s rescue proposal to the U.S. Federal Government, they predicted oil will reach $130/barrel by 2012, i.e., only just over two years away). And, how much food can one eat anyway? We are already living like vegetarians, which is a lot cheaper (and healthier) than eating meat or poultry. We also avoid buying processed foods like cheese and cold meats, etc.; we have no refrigerator or freezer on board and can’t really be bothered buying ice for the cool box. We buy all our clothes at thrift shops or in countries where they are inexpensive: at sea or in the tropics you don’t even need clothes. We don’t as a rule do restaurants or marinas. Countries like Germany, the U.S.A. or Canada have rather high-maintenance life-styles, so visiting places like Ecuador (although not perhaps French Polynesia) shelters us a bit from higher living costs, too. Even the NZ currency is quite low at present. If you are interested and you can sell your house, there are great buys for live-aboard boats at present.

Many cruisers, many of them already retired, are dependent for their cruising income upon the performance of their 401Ks or similar vehicles. Our retirement income, on the other hand, is almost entirely my small German pension. We can live on that because we learned to live on even less for a few years after paid work ended and before the pension began. We have already been through the shrinking process that many, many people, both retired and working have painfully yet to undergo.

A state-backed pension should be fairly reliable for the moment. I expect, however, a huge amount of inflation in the years ahead because of the money-printing that is now beginning in earnest – so far mainly in the USA because, without jacking up the risk premium, it can't flog its government bonds to the Chinese, the Saudis and the Venezuelans any more and, if it were indeed possible, such government borrowing would crowd out any corporate issuers who might one day in the future need money for an economic resurgence. Hence the roar of the printing presses. The German pension is indexed, thank goodness. But, if mega-inflation arrives, that might not really help: first, the cost-of-living adjustment is always after the fact and therfore not much help in runaway inflatin; second, pensions and unemployment benefits tend to be finagled politically when the need for them is greatest. The unemployed and other economically-weakened citizens will have been made nearly voiceless, whilst those still in work and paying taxes, or those watching their inherited wealth shrink will object to “helping” the bouches inutiles – the retired, the sick, the unemployed, conveniently forgetting that the retired “paid” in advance for a pension, the sick for healthcare and the unemployed for benefits. Include Social Security in your evening prayers!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Thursday, April 09, 2009

(This blog is way overdue! I had wanted to write a bit about the repair job on Vilisar’s rudder that took place weeks ago now. But meanwhile I have been travelling and have rather let it slip. But, here it is at last.)

Fellow mariners and avid readers of The Vilisar Times will recall that, when Vilisar arrived in the Islas Las Perlas off the Darien Coast of Panamá on Boxing Day last, we noticed that the uppermost gudgeon had separated from the deadwood. The deadwood is that vertical piece of wood at the stern of the boat). The gudgeon is what the rudder (via its pintels) is hung from when you have a rudder like ours that is “out-hung” instead of being tucked invisibly underneath the boat like many modern vessels. However, as you can see in the photos, the wooden rudder is quite large – larger perhaps than on many modern yachts. Like an iceberg, only a small portion of it is above the water; most of it sweeps in a curve underneath the stern right down to the lowest part of the hull. Including the bottom one, there are three attachment points (pintels hooked into gudgeons; one of the points of attachment is above the water).

With some help from Roger Olsen of Panamá City, we had jury-rigged the rudder out in the islands using a long strip of webbing we had on board; it normally functions as one of our jacklines for tethering ourselves to the boat when at sea. Winching it in tight, it forced the gudgeon and therefore the rudder back up tight to the deadwood. This worked very well and allowed us to motor-sail the half day up to La Playita anchorage at Balboa, the Pacific entrance to the Panamá Canal. Roger also gave us the name of someone who could help us deal with the repairs.

I got in touch with Jim Lang, a New Zealander who has been resident in Panamá for some years, and has a lot of experience with wooden boats. He generally works out of the commercial yard at Vacamonte about 40 Km away along the coast to the west. But it was no problem to bring the shipwrights over to the Balboa Yacht Club, he assured me, where we pulled Vilisar up on Balboa Yacht Club’s marine railway for a few days.

On the first day, Piti, the carpentero navale, showed up at about 0730 with his assistant, Ismael. I learned from others that Piti is considered to be one of the best shipwrights in Panamá. Ismael was very competent too; he is a cameronero (a shrimper) on a large vessel in season, but works in the boatyards the rest of the year. He comes from Pedregal in Western Panamá.

I was eager to see how the shipwrights intended to deal with Vilisar’s big, heavy wooden rudder. I could imagine how they might get it down to the ground using tackle. But getting it back up and set into place was going to be a real job.

This only shows how little I know about repairing wooden boats! Instead of trying to manhandle the rudder, they simply pulled out all the bronze through-bolts that hold the straps of the pintel to the rudder leaving only one in place at the very bottom of the rudder. Then they simply tipped the whole rudder astern on the remaining bolt far enough to permit Piti to wiggle the whole gudgeon and pintel assembly free. Then, they just knocked out the two big, 15” x ½”, silicon-bronze bolts by tapping on them from inside the lazarette hold where they were easily accessible. When they came out, they were seriously corroded (presumably because although above the water line the bolt holes were continually damp) and broken into several pieces.

Pita drove off to Vacamonte to tailor two new bronze bolts while Ismael did small jobs around the boat and cleaned up the bronze gudgeon and pintel. Ninety minutes later Piti was back with the new bolts and a couple of smaller rudder through-bolts that he thought should be replaced as well. The two men set to work re-fastening the rudder. All the pieces were bedded using 3M 5200 sealant. Six hours after arriving at the dock and well before the tide waters started rising, the job was finished.

I had discussed with both Jim Lang and Piti about caulking the hull both below the waterline and above it (we take water mainly when we are heeled over). The next day Piti and Ismael arrived with two other shipwrights and they re-caulked most of the underwater planking and filled the gaps with epoxy. I had hired two local guys to clean the bottom using a pressure hose. Once the shipwrights had finished their work, the local guys applied a fast coat of Hempel Olympic 86900 anti-fouling paint over the newly-caulked seams as well as underneath the wormshoe where there was serious collections of mussels. This was just to hold things over until we could get to the next step.

Piti and I agreed that we would put Vilisar back up on the marine ways for 5-6 days in May after my return. At that time the remaining caulking would be done, the complete hull “wooded” (i.e., all paint removed) and everything newly painted with either anti-fouling or two-part polyurethane (spray) paint. At the same time, we would cut open the bulwarks/caprails amidships to see what is causing the red streaks that run down over the white topside planks. Presumably some fasteners are corroding from the seawater that gets up under there when we are heeled over. At present one cannot see under there at all. We will therefore also modify the bulwarks so that, in the future, they can be inspected underneath easily at any time.

Once Vilisar slipped back into the water, we sailed to Islas Las Perlas, this time with my son Andrew and Susan, for a few days of lolling in the sunshine. I had not been too worried about leaving the boat at anchor at La Playita anchorage for most of the dry season. But, with the NE Trade Winds coming to an end, and the weather threatening to become more unstable with strong southerlies, I decided that Vilisar needed to be in a safer place. So, once Andrew and Susan were safely off to the aeropuerto, I moved Vilisar the seven miles to Isla Taboga and attached her to one of Taboga Mooring’s stout buoys. There she is floating, in about 65 feet of water. The bay at Taboga is charming by any comparison with the busy, rolly and somewhat dirty anchorage at Balboa. Chuy and Susan have taken on the job of looking after the boat while I fly back to Germany for treatment of the small cancerous spots that have been adorning my head.

The haul-out on the small marine ways cost $258 (incl. taxes) for four days (I actually only needed three days but couldn’t get off on the tide) plus another $60 ($30 each way) to the marine railway boys. The rudder repair, the caulking and some of the materials (basically only the ½-inch bronze rod and some epoxy; I provided the paint and the cotton caulking materials) cost $460 including one Sunday at time and one-half. I paid $25 to have the bottom cleaned and another $25 to the local guy to put on the bottom paint. Altogether $828 but still cheaper than in the U.S.A. or Canada, I should think. On my next trip on the RR, I shall avoid Sundays and make sure I can get off on any tide.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

September, 2003

(Note: This little newsletter was sent back after a couple of years to our friends at the Episcopal Church where Kathleen had been the music director . It is fun to re-read it now after so many years.)

It is now 14 months since leaving Frankfurt, Germany, and the Parish of Christ the King for a life at sea. On August 15, we celebrated our first anniversary as “liveaboard” voyagers after finding and acquiring the Sailing Vessel (S/V) Vilisar in Port Townsend, Washington, last summer. At times we can hardly fathom (you will forgive the occasional nautical term) that we have been away so long and we still talk about our old life in Germany as something only recently completed. But in fact, our lives are now quite seriously different and Frankfurt seems very far away indeed.

S/V Vilisar is a double-ended, wooden sailing cutter that was built over a span of four or five years in Victoria, British Columbia, by a boatbuilder and fisherman named George Friend. The boat was launched in 1974. Originally designed by William Atkin, George Friend modified the hull to incorporate a higher prow along the lines of Allan Farrell, a well-known British Columbia designer. Trying to connect to Vilisar’s history, we visited George Friend twice in his home near Victoria. He is now 87, in poor health, frail and housebound. George had originally intended to sail off to the Sea of Cortez and Central America in this boat. He told us that he therefore built Vilisar in a traditional manner but “hell for stout and very simple” so that she would be strong, seaworthy, seakindly and remain free of mechanical problems when away at sea”. After now over a year of cruising we have been more than once thankful for this approach.

Our own general plan when first we conceived of “cruising” was to find a good boat and spend a year or two in sheltered waters while we shook down the vessel and, just as importantly, while we gained sailing experience before deciding whether it was really going to be the life for us, deciding if and when we might finally venture offshore and what our first destinations might be. Despite some fairly bizarre modifications to the plan, we have generally hewn to the overall strategy. Some of the detours, mind you, have been quite substantial. But Vilisar is everything we need and most of what we would like to have in a “world cruiser” and offshore yacht. Of course, we have had to learn enormous amounts in a very short period about maintaining a wooden sailboat that is 34 ½ long on the deck and 41 feet overall (including the bowsprit forward and the boomkin aft) and about caring for a 30-year-old, 3-cylinder, air-cooled, diesel auxiliary engine. Incessant reading and questioning is the only way and then trying to pick one solution from the twenty usually conflicting opinions that have been profferred. The only way to live cheaply on a sailboat is to do most of the maintenance work oneself, not to mention that there are very few mechanics and fitters available when breakdowns occur far out at sea. So knowing the ropes (another nautical term) is essential.

The second part of the strategy, sailing experience, has of course also required time. We decided to get sailing as quickly as possible and our first cruise last summer (2001) was to take the three children, Andrew, Antonia and William, to Seattle at the end of their summer vacation with us so they could fly home to their mother in New Orleans. Our collected sailing experience at that early stage was still rather meagre; we made up for it with enthusiasm. This first cruise was therefore rather like a monkey circus; those eager to do something often working at odds with others dead keen to do the same. Overwhelmed, Dad aged visibly. Three children at close quarters on a boat gives new meaning to the term “water torture”; to get an idea, try to recall last summer’s car journey with your own three kids. But we did it and the kids had a host of stories to tell when they got back to school. Certainly they had spent more time at sea than any of their classmates and seen more eagles, sea lions and seals as well.

When we bought the Vilisar, it came with a permanent moorage in a marina near Port Townsend. After our second cruise – to the nearby San Juan Islands in September - we decided to give up the slip for good and just live at anchor wherever we happened to be. This was partly done for financial reasons; moorings after all are expensive. More importantly, however, we had cast ourselves as voyagers and voyagers do not have permanent bases. Every registered vessel has to have a hailing port and the Vilisar’s happens to be Juneau, Alaska (a previous owner had been based in Alaska). A large sign on the boat’s stern even advertises this in accordance with U.S. Coast Guard requirements. But, we wanted to travel rather than be based in any one place. The more we lived aboard and sailed her, the more our confidence in ourselves and the vessel grew and we began to believe we might one day indeed go offshore to Central America and even beyond to the Marquesas, Fiji, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Europe, etc. It would take years to do. But we were in no hurry. We had time.

So, although we used Port Townsend as a base last winter, where we also sang in a chamber choir, where Kathy substituted off and on as an organist and conductor, and where we house-sat for two months in mid-winter, we still sailed throughout the winter in the (U.S.) San Juan Islands and the (Canadian) Gulf Islands as far as Victoria, Nanaimo and Vancouver. Even today, we almost never moor in a marina, preferring to anchor in small coves or inlets away from towns, outside of marinas and away from the shipping lanes where things are quieter, cleaner, more beautiful and cheaper. Whenever I receive a large translation project to work on, we simply drop the anchor somewhere and stay until it is finished and then dispatch the finished product using an email connected to a cellphone or satellite phone and a computer.

Last October, our friend, Albert Pang, of Christ the King joined us for two weeks; you can view his photographs at He was with us for our first “stormy” crossing of the Strait of Georgia from Nanaimo to Vancouver. Though we were inordinately proud of that experience and achievement at the time, and though it took three days for the adrenaline to subside, compared to what we have been through since it was in reality quite tame.

We soon realised that it would be an opportunity missed to leave the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast without first visiting Northern British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and, if possible the Queen Charlotte Islands. This would be a big challenge to boat and crew, however. Veteran Alaska travellers never ceased to send chills of terror up and down our spines with their stories of close calls, near-death and destruction in riptides, cataracts, fog and rain on the Inside or Outside Passages to Alaska. At the same time, we told ourselves, hundreds do the trip each spring and summer and live to tell their mothers all about it. Why then couldn’t we too take v/s Vilisar on a pilgrimage to its home-port, Juneau, Alaska?

We therefore set off from Port Townsend, Washington, on April 25, 2002, and headed north to Victoria via the San Juan Islands. Although we were planning to use the Inside Passage to Juneau, i.e. mostly in “sheltered” waters and channels rather than going offshore, we were also determined to sail as much of the way as possible and to try to get offshore experience on the way back south if possible. That said, however, we did wind up motoring or motor-sailing most of the time after leaving the Strait of Georgia.

Our total Voyage to Alaska lasted 116 days and roughly 2,000 nautical miles from Port Townsend to Juneau and back to Comox, British Columbia, where we are at present. Until late June, we saw relatively few other pleasure vessels and certainly very few sailboats once we jumped from Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and continued beyond Cape Caution to Prince Rupert, B.C., and thence across the U.S.-Canadian border to reach Ketchikan, Alaska. What we did see were a lot of mountains, wooded or bare, not infrequently still snow-peaked in June. What we saw were hundreds of isolated coves and inlets and many, many waterfalls descending from great heights to cascade into the channels as we passed. Going farther and farther north, reaching at the most northerly spot, Point Retreat, at N 58 25.82’ between Juneau and Glacier National Park. This is farther north than most of the Aleutian Islands and getting close to the same latitude as Stockholm, Sweden. At the most westerly we sailed on the Gulf of Alaska beyond Cross Sound (W 136 38.48’). What we saw were fewer and fewer people, settlements and boats and more and more bald eagles, puffins, sea otters, sea lions, various types of dolphins, humpback whales, orcas (i.e. killer) whales as well as black and brown bears. We caught and ate our own wild salmon and ling cod. We anchored hundreds of times. We changed our clothes hundreds of times (in Alaska it always seems to be either getting warmer or getting colder, just starting to rain or just stopping; if you are on a boat in Alaska, it
is never actually hot). We visited Victoria, Sidney, Powell River, Comox, Port Hardy and Prince Rupert in British Columbia and Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka and Craig in Alaska. We were rained on and “blowed at”, we braved cataracts and riptides. We tore a mainsail in a gale and lost our GPS overboard in a night passage the length of Queen Charlotte Sound. We were sometimes frightened and exhausted, we were often cold and wet and sometimes discouraged and ready to quit. In all this, however, we were constantly knocked speechless by the landscape. “Majestic”, “grand”, “huge” and “spectacular” hardly even begins to describe the endless mountain ranges and snowy peaks, the huge clouds that accumulate around the peaks, the ocean swells and the huge foaming rocks at the entrances to harbours, fjords and coves. And if at times we craved warm summer sunshine, if at times we wished we could do without four layers of clothing to sit in an open cockpit even on dry days, if at times we were frightened and overwhelmed, all that is now forgotten and we recall only the adventure and the beauty. Several mariners have told us that our first voyage was to one of the most challenging cruising grounds in the world; if we handled that all right – by which they mean possibly that we survived – we should have no worse problems going offshore.

On the way back south we sailed the Outside Passage and offshore on the Gulf of Alaska and on the Pacific itself to reach the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. We used our short ten days there to visit the sites of ancient tribal villages of the Haida Nation in this remote archipelago. Our visit included, on the one hand for example, bathing in natural outdoor hot springs with views to the mountains from damned up springs coming from the bowels of the earth or, on the other, standing in silence surrounded by old mortuary totem poles at the site of the first and last recorded Haida village, wiped out by the great smallpox epidemics of the 1880s when the Haidas in the Queen Charlottes declined from 20,000 people to only a few hundred demoralised and scattered remnants.

We did our first overnight passage the length of Queen Charlotte Sound (approx. 150 miles) with 3-4 metre waves hissing up behind us in the night and porpoises playing around us. Their eerie breathing so close to us in the dark first gave us the creeps until we could figure out what the sound actually was. We finished our trip by coming south again on BC’s Inside Passage on the side of Vancouver Island facing the continent. We were headed for Comox on the Strait of Georgia where we planned to visit with fellow voyaging friends that we had met earlier. Even in these protected waters we were able to make each day’s passage in gale-force following winds, winds so strong that on the penultimate day, we put a two-foot rent in our mainsail during a controlled jibe.

Once we dropped our anchor at Comox, we found warm August days and a time for rest after nearly four months of continuous, intensive and frequently arduous cruising. We were healthy and fit but very weary. Andrew and William had to be brought to the airport in Seattle to fly home (Antonia had spent six weeks with us on from Port Hardy to Juneau). They had already missed two weeks of school but failed altogether to register any remorse whatsoever. Once they were gone, Kathy and I were alone again aboard our floating home for the first time in 14 weeks.

We needed to address the task of refitting and painting Vilisar. After a year of nearly continual cruising, which had been preceded by several years of mild neglect at her dock in Port Townsend, Vilisar was in dire need of paint and varnish from mast-top to waterline and from stem to stern. Certainly she looked somewhat battle-scarred compared to the pristine cabin cruisers that so frequently roared past us leaving us rolling in their wakes.

We are nearing the end of the third week of this work, slower this first time through the refitting process since we had to learn how to do each individual step. But in a few days we will begin sailing farther south. We have decided not to make for Mexico this year; by the time we could get ourselves ready and procure some extra safety equipment for the boat, we would have missed the storm-free period down the Oregon and California coasts to San Francisco and San Diego. And besides, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what can be seen by boat in British Columbia: Jervis Inlet and Princess Louise Sound, for example, or Desolation Sound and the Broughton Archipelago. We will therefore live aboard Vilisar this winter in Victoria, get some temporary jobs to build up our cruising kitty and hope for more translating projects. In between, we will make short winter cruises to the Gulf Islands, Vancouver, etc.

Looking back, there have certainly been days when we wished we had been elsewhere, when we have been cold and wet and miserable. I recall Kathy going below off watch when we crossed the length of Queen Charlotte Sound at night in 35-knot winds saying, “I am reviewing my life’s plan and I not sure that there is a place for a sailboat in it!” Voyagers live on the financial edge too, it seems. But, we recall, we had days like that in Frankfurt too. Who doesn’t? But withal, we are having a great time. When we decided to take up the sailing life we said we would keep doing it as long as it was fun. Well, it’s still fun.