The Vilisar Times

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Isla Taboga, Panamá, Sunday, 17 May 2009

Back in Panamá

After the long flights from Europe to Panamá, after two nights in a backpackers’ hostel in Panamá City waiting for baggage to catch up, after adjusting our thinking and behaviour from a modern European city to a bustling, loud, tropical and somewhat dirty Central American city, after contacting taxi-driver Roosevelt to take us to a large supermarket to stock up for a couple of weeks at anchor, after hiring one of the local luggage porters at the Balboa Yacht Club to move our groceries and baggage out the long, long quay there, we find ourselves on Friday aboard the fast afternoon lancha (passenger ferry) to Isla Taboga, seven miles away. The air is heavily humid. Although the sun is shining as the two big outboards speed us across the ship channel leading to the Panamá Canal, it still feels hot. We give silent thanks for the breeze as we move and for the fact that, with the help of others, we did not actually have to do much lifting and heaving and carrying of our luggage and grocery bags ourselves. We are still stiff from handling them at airports.

Like every cruiser who has been away from his boat - his home after all, as we pass the hazardous-cargo ships (oil, natural gas, etc.) that are anchored well away from the city and baking in the heat, we begin to crane our necks to see if we can spot Vilisar. Chuy and Susan of Taboga Island Moorings assured us yesterday that the boat was still there; no problems; Chuy had gone out to air her out for us. There she is! She looks so tiny from this distance.

We arrive at the muelle, the fixed dock inside the wide bay. Taboga Island used to be a fever station while the Canal was under construction. It was completed in August 1914 just as World War I was beginning. It was a total government job; where the French under Ferdinand de Lyssops failed, the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built her, an engineering wonder of the world. One story that everyone knows is that the Engineers eliminated yellow fever and malaria. This is perhaps not quite true. But by insisting on good drainage, regular anti-mosquito spraying and a number of other measures, yellow fever was “largely” contained and controlled. Any worker who became infected was moved to Taboga Island, which is somewhat less rainy and is blessed with cooling sea breezes. Its most famous patient was Paul Gaugin, who worked on the Canal as a labourer and later moved on to Polynesia.

There is little sign of the American presence nowadays. If you look carefully you might identify one of the older sanatorium buildings or houses built for the medial staff. But most of the little settlement scattered around the bay is more recent. There are a few small hotels and B&Bs. We mix briefly with the other passengers unloading bags and orders brought over from the mainland until we spot Chuy coming across bay in his inflatable dingy. He and Susan are Americans, a cruising couple aboard S/V Libre out of The Channel Islands/Ventura in California who have temporarily swallowed the anchor to start a little business on Taboga. He is a handsome dude who with his pencil moustache reminds you of some famous Mexican film star. He organises a panga to take us out to Vilisar and tags along to make sure we get settled in.

In my nightmares I imagined that oily bilge-water would be up over the cabin sole, that everything would smell musty and be covered with a white dusting of mildew and that there would somehow be wind or sun damage. Well, yes, the sun has bleached the deck paint and it’s lifting in places; Yes, it did smell vaguely at first of diesel oil and mildew down below. But, basically everything is just as I left it. The forecastle is stuffed full of sails and it was going to take a while to get groceries and clothing and the boat stuff that we had brought stowed somewhere below. But we were home again. The worst thing we could complain about was that the cabin fan was not working and it was hot at night.

New headstays

For years the galvanised-iron wire-rope headstays have been a nuisance. All the other wire-rope on board (stays and shrouds) are also iron wire-rope but they are parcelled and served, and therefore protected from rust. But the fore- and jibstays are bare. Over the years the sail hanks have scraped off whatever galvanisation the headstays still had, and they now bleed rust on our sails and onto the deck. While I was in Germany therefore, I ordered twenty-one metres of 8 mm, 7x7 stainless steel wire rope from Toplicht (they focus on traditional yachts, the excellent marine chandler in Hamburg. They put the order together for me on the telephone. Planning to cut the wire more exactly after the old stays were on the ground, I ordered the wire (generously measured) in one piece and had the ends spliced with a stainless-steel eye. I then bought two Norsemen-brand eye terminals to add later. I picked Norsemen because you don’t need special equipment on board (presses and the like) to attach them. The whole Toplicht order came to € 406 (i.e., 21 metres of 8 mm, i.e., approx. 5/16 inch wire rope; 2x eye thimbles; the splicing work; 2x Norsemen eye terminals with internal cones; and 19% Value-added Tax).

One of the things I have grown to hate is the reply to a technical or how-to question directed to another cruiser that goes, “Oh! That’s easy!” Of course it’s easy if you have already done it a few times! Even spaceships are easy once you’ve shot a few into space! But, this is my first go with Norsemen, and I thought it better to have some experience on this job. Chuy told me about Alex, a Swiss national who was raised on wooden boats by his parents and earns money working on boats as he travels around the world. Tall, muscular and in his early 40s, he presents an exotic picture with his partially shaven head, his dreadlocks, his wispy beard, his silver-capped eye-teeth, his many body tattoos and his beautiful, coal-black Madagascar wife, Seida. You don’t get much more exotic than that! According to Chuy, Alex is also a rigger. When we run across him and Sieda as we are walking yesterday along the single pathway parallel to the cove, it is clear that he has already been spoken to by Chuy. We discuss for a few minutes and he promises to come out the next day.

At 0830 this morning he drives up in his dinghy ready for work. Fortunately, awake at dawn, I have already found our bosun’s chair under the sail bags in the forecastle, dug out my tool bags and my rigging materials and equipment and am more or less ready to go. We discuss the problem in more detail and soon after he is at the top of the mast to dismantle the shackle holding the jibstay (we have decided to do one stay at a time to the mast doesn’t get out of whack.) Then we measure the new wire rope against the old, tape a section and cut through it in a few minutes with a hacksaw. Obviously from how he fingers the wire and fiddles everything together, he has done this before. It’s easy! But, unlike other craftsmen, he doesn’t mind explaining what he is doing, so that in the future I can do it myself. Within the hour the jibstay has been replaced. Fantastic!

The forestay presents a different problem. The old one is spliced in a big loop around the mast just above the spreaders. Since I could not easily know how to measure it while alone on the boat, I had left a margin of error when ordering the wire: I had planned to make a noose out of galvanised link-chain (I have lots and lots of it aboard) and shackle the Norseman-end to that. Alex thinks this is a less than good idea since it would require a certain amount of modification at the spreaders to accommodate the chain. We decide to make a noose out of a piece of wire that I shall buy in Panamá City. There are quite a few chandlers there and we shall just get a metre of 8 mm stainless wire rope and fasten it with stainless steel wire clamps. Maybe we shall travel over together in his fast dinghy or I shall catch the ferry.

We are finished today’s bout in about two hours. We park ourselves under the cockpit awing for a while to drink coffee and chat. It’s become really hot and the afternoon sea breezes have not picked up yet. We are pouring with sweat. On him it looks manly. On me it just looks sweaty. Then Alex buzzes us over to his 13-metre, engine-less, steel boat for a look-see and to meet Seida again.

The yacht is without engine, but he has a 25 hp Yamaha outboard engine that he can use either on his dinghy or attach to the back of his big boat. That’s the way he motored through the Panamá Canal. He’s right that a diesel engine takes up a lot of time, costs a lot to run and maintain and uses up an inordinate amount of space. (On top of this, our museum-piece air-cooled Lister is loud and hot.) And Alex swears that he really only learned to sail when the engine gave up the ghost and he tossed it away. He’s probably right. Not only doesn’t he have an engine, he doesn’t have electric lights (he uses oil lamps), or water tanks (he carries water in jugs on the huge flush-deck and tops up a 20-litre, plastic day-tank down below. All the bulkheads have been removed down below and there is enough space to hold a tango competition in those wid-open spaces

Basically, Alex is a Lebenskünstler, a cruising chacracter who grew up on wooden boats. He has really spent his whole life on boats and has his own fascinating philosophy. He loves Madagascar and is generally headed back that way. We aren’t perhaps as bohemian as Alex. But we feel an affinity to him more than perhaps to cruisers with money and over-equipped boats. We sail on a shoestring. Our equipment needs are small. Perhaps his yacht is even more primitive than ours (we have no fridge; no freezer; no head; no radar; no ham radio or SSB; no A.I.S.; etc.). It comes as no surprise that Alex failed to fit into any school he was sent to. And with his filed-off and silver-capped eye-teeth alone he would stand out like a sore thumb anywhere in Europe.

Yesterday evening I bought a three-pound sea bass from a local fisherman (at only $1.50 a pound!) and tried to cook it in the Chinese way Alfred Pang showed us. But I didn’t steam it long enough and the oil had moreover perhaps gone off while we were away. Anyway, it was a disapppointment. Back on the boat in the midday heat therefore, we tart up the leftovers from yesterday’s lunch and enjoy a hearty soup of rice and tomato sauce with frankfurters before stretching out on the berths for a snooze. Ah, the cruising life!