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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Isla Taboga, Panamá, Sunday, June 28, 2009

Well, I guess we are over it now! In fact, we never seemed to be completely bowled over by the great event. We were of course never actually in personal danger at any time. But it did seem sometimes that we were about to lose Vilisar and all her contents and be left stranded in Panamá.

Looking back, there seems to have been a cascading series of events, one leading to the other, that led in the end to a catastrophe. I wrote that we had noticed that our brand-new tanbark jibsail and bag had gone missing. The likeliest reason was that it had fallen overboard and disappeared during a blow in Las Brisas de Amador anchorage. However, we only noticed its absence as we were stowing the dinghy on deck as the last step before leaving Panamá. We found a local diver willing to look around on the bottom under the boat in the remote chance that he could find it in the murky waters. Because we couldn’t find a powerful-enough generator, the whole effort had to be postponed for another day. The chances of finding the sail and bag were pretty low and so were our spirits. We decided in the night, however, that if the divers were un-successful on Tuesday we would just leave anyway and do our voyage to The Galapagos and The Marquesas anyway. On the sails we still had on board. All our preparations were done, we were emotionally keyed up for the challenge, the forecastle full of fresh produce, all the lockers and drawers full of canned goods and the only things left to do were to tank up fresh water and to fill the four 5-gallon jerry jugs on deck with diesel fuel. This we would do at La Playita dock and then head for Isla Contadora, a half a day to the SE, where we would anchor for one night to sort everything out.

Low tide was scheduled for 1000 on Tuesday, 23 June 2009. The divers would park their cabin cruiser next to us so they would have sufficient power. After coffee, Kathleen gets out the binoculars and makes a last careful look along the exposed beach. It has been several days now since the sail went missing (or we noticed); we having some of the year’s extreme highs and lows in June. She spots a dark formless lump along the beach that might just be our sail bag. I jump in the dinghy and row over. I try not to get my hopes up. It looks too small, after all. And how would it have travelled the three or four hundred metres to the beach when full of water and sand. Why didn’t it just sink to the bottom?

But damn! It’s our sail bag and sail, all right! I give Kathleen a thumbs-up that she can see through the binos. I heave the heavy, soggy and sand-filled bag into the dinghy and row back to Vilisar. The two of us row over to the dock to unpack the bag and wash everything out with the fresh-water hose. What a relief! We are almost giddy at our good fortune! About noon, we are back aboard Vilisar with the re-packed sail bag and are loading the dinghy onto the foredeck. We stop at the cabin cruiser to give Eduardo and Julio a tip for helping us out the day before. We are attaheah!

We are in great spirits as we motor out of the anchorage and around to La Playita to tank up. Even the price-gouging practised by those evil sonsabitches fails to dampen our joy (they charge $2.47 per 4-litre gallon for diesel plus a $10 docking fee plus 5¢ a litre for fresh water. Rip-off artists! I hope the mildew and fungus does them in! “Don’t hold back, Ronaldo! Let it all out! Give us your real feelings!”) By about 1330 we are finally on our way.

We are already well out amongst the laid-up freighters, bulk carriers and container ships that, anchored, litter the approaches to the Panamá Canal when Kathleen announces from the cabin that none of the electrical instruments (VHF radio, depth sounder, cabin lights, etc.) seem to be working. The engine alternator and the solar panels seem to be putting amps into the batteries, but nothing seems to be working. The breaker switch refuses to budge from “Off”.

Oh, well! We’ll just amend our first night from Las Perlas to Isla Taboga. There is a fast ferry the seven miles over to Panamá City if we need parts, and we know one or two people on Taboga who know about 12-volt electricity and who might be able to figure out what’s going on.

The recent work on the boat including re-caulking and repainting, as well as the welding have left us pretty much penniless for the next few weeks. So, as we come slowly into the bay at Taboga village, we try to find a reasonable depth for anchoring rather than picking up one of Chuy’s strong rental buoys. In fact, Chuy comes out in his dinghy to meet us. He tells us it is not good to anchor in the spot we have chosen but to pick up a red buoy that is regularly used by big yachts and where they frequently forget to collect a fee. By late afternoon when Alex, the Swiss guy who helped us with our new forestays, comes by in his motorboat, we are contentedly sipping drinks in the cockpit under the awning.

Alex comes aboard immediately for a coffee and a chinwag. We are happy to see him. He then takes a look at our electrical problem and determines that our inverter has been burnt out. We deduce that the divers’ compressor has stressed the whole system. Bypassing the inverter, we immediately have all our systems working again. Happiness, all round!

Alex suggests that we go with him and his Madagascan wife, Seida, to a Chinese restaurant on land. About 1730 we pay a visit to a German publisher named Hans in his cottage on the hill and then move over to the restaurant. By 2030 it is well and truly dark as we head back out to the boat. Unfortunately, the boat’s not there any more!

After a few seconds of scanning in the dark, I spot Vilisar over along the beach, heeled way over on her port side. We drive towards her. Kathleen holds her hands to her face and says repeatedly, “Oh, no! Oh, no!” Two minutes later we are struggling up the steeply-inclined deck to see how much water is in her cabin.

To our surprise, there is very little water inside. But it is obvious that Vilisar has been bounced and shaken hard as the tide went out. Fortunately, we were stowed for going to sea. But some galley items are on the floor and wet as well as some loose clothing and bedding. The cabin lights work so the batteries are still dry. Thank goodness for the new fibre-glassed battery box I built! And the starting battery is on the uphill side and therefore quite dry.

The mooring ball is still attached to the front of the boat. We deduce that the underwater shackles must have parted and that the boat drifted over to the shore somewhat before low tide and while we were in town over the last two or three hours. Vilisar is lying on her port side as if she had been deliberately careened. Unfortunately, however, she is lying in a field of sharp rocks and boulders. She must have been pounded a bit as the tide went down. For the moment, however, the water is nearly all the way out and Vilisar is lying without any feeling of buoyancy.

The afternoon shore breezes have died down and the small ocean swells that sometimes find their way into Taboga Bay seem to be dropping too. That’s a relief! If there were a surf running, Vilisar would be in terrible trouble instead of just in trouble. We check our tide tables and find that low tide will be about 2220, only an hour or two away. Since we are having extreme tides at present (about 20 feet differences between highs and lows), we reckon the water will come up fairly rapidly and that we might be able to float her off about 0200.

Alex and Seida return to their boat to have a cup of tea and wait. As the water drops even further, I take a flashlight, skid down the steep incline of the bridge, drop into the rocks that are awash, move carefully back to the stern and remove the tab from the windvane steering so it will not be damaged once we start the recovery operation. That tab is vulnerable out there on the stern and the windvane’s tubular steel construction could be bent.

Then we wait. I lie down on the damp (upside) side deck and even doze off for a moment until I feel the chill. Kathleen falls asleep inside on the damp downside settee. Talk about collected!

I warn Kathleen that, although we do not seem to have sustained any damage, we could start taking water or even be holed or damaged as we bounce around over the rocks as the tide comes up. At about 0145, I feel the boat lifting occasionally as the small swells swish up on the rocks under the boat. I call Alex on the VHF and soon he appears again, this time with a heavy plough anchor and lots of rope. He drops the anchor a hundred metres out from the beach as a kedge, and we take the other end over the winch.

In the end this kedging approach proves futile since the anchor refuses to bite and we succeed only in winching the anchor back up to the boat. I am afraid that even the small swells we are experiencing will force us higher up on the rocks and create more damage. So, Alex ties his dinghy with a 25 hp outboard on her to the bow and keeps a strain on the line as the boat begins to right herself. We hear her grinding on the rocks beneath us. She has to get at least five feet of water under the keel in order to get off. More, probably, since we are heavily loaded.

Around 0200, as the water rises but long before we actually begin to float again, water begins to rise in the cabin. We start to bail using buckets. But the water is coming in faster than we can hand up buckets and dump them down the bridge. Where is it coming from? The floorboards begin to float and the bouncing around of the boat causes other items to drop into the water with a splash. I tell Kathleen to man the 30 gph, hand-operated Whale Gusher bilge pump. Thank goodness we had a new one installed last year!

For a while, the water seems to be getting ahead of us. Then we are rocking back and forth with Vilisar’s keel on a rock and the water sloshes back and forth under the galley sink and port berth, then violently across and up under the starboard berth and under the nav table and its filled drawers. Kathleen is standing in water above her ankles and swirling with detritus from inside out cabin. I see my clothing bag, now weighing a hundredweight, slopping around. Small items fall alternatively off the nav table of the galley top. This is our only moment of fear. Not that we might be injured, but that the boat, even if pulled off the rocks, will sink because we can’t pump fast enough and can’t get a leak stopped.

At around 0200 or 0215, Alex’s dinghy pulls the bow slightly around and gets it pointed it away from the beach. We are still hung up on a big rock, however, and can’t quite yet get free. But a little while later, and without much ado, we finally float free. The other piece of good news is that the pumping is now getting ahead of the water.

We were about to start the engine when we noticed that the long wooden tiller attached to the out-hung rudder had sheared off at its base. We cannot at present steer the boat. Alex decides to tow us over to the village dock where we can give the boat an initial once-over for apparent damage. If necessary, we can wake up the Port Captain and borrow a high-capacity pump.

We spend the next half-hour there, but the waters are being pumped out, and we can see no overt damage beyond the broken tiller. We decide to tow Vilisar out and anchor her near Alex’s yacht. The night is still: no winds, and very little swell. The inside of the cabin is a soggy, wet mess. But we decide to try to get some sleep and clean up in daylight. We are worried about the water rising again. But so far nothing is happening on that front. We are still rather keyed up, of course, and go over and over the event. But Vilisar seemed to be all right and daylight will make everything look better.

We soon find that our water supply had become contaminated with seawater. We also have to pump regularly every couple of hours. On the other hand, the volume of water is diminishing. Alex and I dive on the boat with masks around 0900. WE notice wood and paint damage beneath the water line and perhaps one plank seam near the stem that looks like it might have some damage. Perhaps that’s where the water is coming from. It is clear that we need to be hauled out and we soon made arrangements by cellphone with Balboa Yacht Club to go on the marine railway, and for carpenteros Erwin and Ivan Pitti to attend to the repairs. The earliest we can get on is 04 July, however. We are all right here for the moment.

Unless we intended to be towed the seven miles to the marine ways, we needed to get the tiller repaired. Good Old Alex! He is over the next day with Frederico, a local worker. We pay Frederico $10 to dig out all the old wood from the tiller base; it turned out to be punky right through, which explains why it broke off under stress. We simply shorten the old tiller, from the diameter a bit, insert the healthy part of the tiller into the base and bolt her down again. A few hours later we are mobile again! We fire up the engine for the first time to make sure we have no problems there. A-OK! In fact, the shorter tiller is better since it doesn’t stick out into the cockpit area as far.

Later in the day we note that the water tank under the port berth has shifted, i.e., torn off its mounts and moved about an inch into the cabin. Perhaps saltwater is getting into the tank through the opened bolt holes. This will have to be checked and the whole tank re-set. Fortunately, we have four jerry jugs of good water on deck. By the end of 48 hours we are no longer pumping. I assume that there must be a slow leak in the fresh-water tank as well, and the same hole that let in sea water is also now letting the contents flow out into the bilge. Oh, well! We can always re-fibre-glass the tank or make new one.

It takes us two days to pull out all the wet clothing and other articles and put them outside to dry. Drying is not helped by the humid, squally weather. The new sponge mattresses are soaked and seems never to dry. Even once dried, the bedding feels clammy from the salt-held dampness. The contents of the nav table’s bottom drawers are soaking and a lot of gear spoiled and the wood swelled so it is almost impossible to get open. I toss a lot of stuff. Some of it should have been tossed years ago!

In general, we are fine. We have “tons of food”, as Kathleen repeatedly points out. The boat has some small damage but some of it has already been repaired. We are pretty bummed out that we are not on our way to The Galapagos. But, if we don’t lose our nerve, we can still go after we affect the repairs. In the meantime, Kathleen notifies her proofreading clients that she is available for work and spends hours at the internet café making money. Bless her!

For a long time, we cannot figure out where the seawater entered the boat. Nothing is coming from the area of the suspicious plank forward and there is hardly any pumping to do. It must have come in through the engine-room air vents that are located under the cockpit seats. I had forgotten to install them before going to sea. They are well and truly place now. We don’t need them since we no longer have a bulkhead door to the engine room; we got rid of it because we wanted more air to the engine.

Isla Taboga, Panamá, Monday, 29 June 2009

We are just hanging around Taboga until next weekend when we go up on the grid. A huge squall came up yesterday, Sunday, with the bay full of weekend boaters form Panamá City. There was a lot of dragging and resetting in 50 kt winds. I’m glad we were not on our way to The Galapagos in that. Apparently it was a very big front associated with a hurricane up in Mexico. So, you see,: Glück in Unglück!

If we had gone on the rocks in that squall, things would have been quite different. As it was, the sea was relatively calm so late at night, there was no surf running and the wind had died nearly completely away. We are thankful that Alex was around to help us and that we sustained relatively little damage. Cosmetic stuff, really, except for the water tank and the tiller. It is good to have had these problems here where they can be so easily fixed, and not out at sea.

On the negative side, all the time we were on the boat while she lay marooned on her side at night right in front of many village houses, right in front of the whole village waterfront in fact, we never saw a single local. Certainly, not a single person came the few metres to offer help. Nobody even stood around watching. We found out the next day that everybody in the village knew about it. They just passed by on the other side. Don’t count on local help if you are in Taboga!
Las Brisas anchorage, Balboa, Panamá City, Panamá, Monday, 22 June 2009

Last-minute preparations for a departure are fraught at the best of times. There are so many things that you need to do in the final hours: shopping for fresh produce; topping up water and fuel, installing offshore-sailing gear like the windvane-steering tab, jack lines, and even bending on sails that were being stored out of the tropical UV rays in the forepeak. We had intended to leave several weeks ago and had even stocked up on potatoes and onions and lots and lots of tinned foods. Then we decided that we should have the welding work done by Ali, the German welder here in the anchorage. Although we are totally happy with the work and have enjoyed Ali’s individualistic character and his endlessly-interesting stories and yarns from his over thirty years aboard a sailing vessel, the welding work (safety handholds in the cockpit and mounts for the solar panels) took more time than we had expected. Meanwhile we were either eating up our rations or the fresh fruits and vegetables were starting to go bad. Man! How can we get out of here?!

In time, all the welding is completed and we are back to last-minute things again including another hectic visit to El Abastos, the wholesale fruits and vegetables market, carting jugs of diesel out to the boat, etc. One of the biggest and newest items for us has been re-activating our Iridium satellite telephone. We already owned the Motorola 9500-model phone, a re-conditioned apparatus that we had bought second-hand for C$ 700 from Strykers at Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island in 2002. At that time I was still translating every day for the Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a national daily newspaper in Germany. Although we were able to get excellent communications in even the remotest fjord or channel in northern British Columbia and SE Alaska, we alas were only able to use the phone for about a month before the newspaper announced that they were going to discontinue the English-language print edition. This was a personal financial blow made worse by the fact that, due to our inexperience on how to use the satphone economically, we ran up a bill for one month of over $1,000. Without work, it took months and months to work that off. With no income, we were reduced to eating blackberries and catching fish while we lay at anchor in Comox, British Columbia.

After that experience, we de-activated the satphone. The equipment has been living for the last seven years since then in a locker in Vilisar’s forepeak. Expecting to cross the South Pacific this season and knowing that Kathleen’s family would be worrying about us, we had the phone checked over by Rollo at Electriconico de Ancón. After installing a new battery, the phone seemed to be working well despite its age.

In the end we approach Marina Satellite Services in Balboa-Ancón and purchase a prepaid card valid for two months with renewal options. All this seems to take days and days and we are still at anchor at Las Brisas de Amador at the Paicfic entrance to the Panamá Canal. (If you are interested in Iridium services and costs, see below ‘Iridium satphone’.)

Finally, however, we decide that we will use the Saturday to get the boat ready and leave on Sunday after first stopping at La Playita to get the last few gallons of diesel fuel and to top up our water tanks and jugs. There seems still to be a million things to do. Stowing is complicated now by so many fresh foods that, in some cases, tomatoes or carrots for example, need to be individually wrapped and stowed. Kathleen has spent hours up in the cramped forecastle to get everything properly stowed. We took a tip from Lyn Pardy (Care and Feeding of the Offshore Crew) and bought a dozen small (approx. 12”x16), square, perforated-plastic baskets ($1.25 each at Costo in Allbrook Mall) that can be spread out and loaded with individual items when needed or stacked into one small pile when not. We even used several baskets for books and other items. In our second visit to Los Abostos, we selected different types of onions since the ones we first bought were ripening far too quickly. Rotting begetables in your boat is not something to aspire to. We also bought small watermelons (they keep well if not bruised), eight colourful small squashes (they keep for years!), and more garlic and ginger. In addition we bought more perishable items like carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, and a couple of strange vegetables that looke rather like zucchini that we shall try out. Live adventurously!

But, although primed to leave early Sunday, by Saturday night we are still feeling unprepared. We debate leaving Las Brisas in the afternoon, stopping just around the point at La Playita for fuel and water (we could actually tank up more conveniently at nearby Flemenco Marina, but, as Markus and Tina (S/V Blue Callaloo) point out, there are a lot of immigration and customs guys around Flamenco, and we were supposed to have left Panamá weeks ago!), and then motoring the seven miles over to Isla Taboga for one night. This would get the anchor up, break the ‘suction’ of our old anchorage, allow us if necessary to clean the prop and bottom in less polluted water, get a good night’s sleep and finish readying the boat.

The best laid plans of mice and men ……etc.! Sunday starts hot and humid and the daily afternoon downpour starts before we are ready to pull up the dinghy. All the sail covers and the awning, which must be stored below are soaking wet. The rain lasts for hours and, finally, we decide to take it easy, not get too excited, and leave on Monday morning. This takes all the pressure out of the situation and in the evening I prepare a nice stir-fry with chorizo sausage, green peppers, carrots and onions (lots of ‘em so they get used up before they rot) over steamed white rice. Delicious! Just after dark we continue our on-board Canasta tournament and the lights are out by about 2130.

If it’s not one thing it’s another!

I waken at dawn. The rain from yesterday has washed the sky clean and the air is invitingly sunny. At 0700 we drink a coffee and I go on deck to bail out the dinghy and unbolt the two parts. Kathleen comes on deck and we are just about to pull the dink up and place the first part over the forward hatch. It is then that I notice that the big brown sail bag with our new tan bark jibsail is not there. I had moved it last week and draped it over the hanked-on genoa to protect the latter from the UV rays and to give myself more room on the foredeck. The bag is long and heavy, and it seemed to be parked there solidly. But, as the Newfoundlanders say, there it was! Gone!

I was bowled over. It was our brand-new Yankee and the bag was new as well! Yes, we have a back-up jib, albeit rather old and full of repairs. And we have a small genoa that is already bent on. We also have a large red drifter. So we can carry on with the voyage if we have to. But what happened to the sail?

Either it was stolen off the deck (hard to imagine a local stealing a sail bag and even other cruisers would not likely steal something that might not fit their own boat). The other answer is that it fell overboard. This is possible I guess, although given its weight and size it could not just be blown overboard in the relatively light winds we have been having. Possibly it just sort of slid off over a few days.

We get out the binoculars and scour the exposed beach and waters in the bay. I also put the dinghy back together and row along the beach until I come to a big cabin cruiser where two local guys were working. I am on my way to ask around the dinghy dock and to report the loss at he marina office. I don’t have much hope, but at least it is some sort of action. Nobody any the wiser there, of course! Back at the cabin cruiser, Eduardo tells me he is a diver. He has the hookah compressor and is willing to come over immediately while the tide is out to scour around beneath the boat. At low tide we are in about 10-12 feet of water. The water here in the anchorage is very murky and basically polluted. I have already tried snorkelling this morning and visibility for me was only about five or six feet.

Eduardo and his helper Julio buzz over in their fast dinghy (these guys are just he crew on a boat belonging to a wealthy local; the dinghy and 75 hp outboard is worth more than Vilisar) and set their compressor up on deck. Unfortunately, it takes about 1500 amps and our little 500-amp inverter, even with the engine going, is not up to it. Julio and I make a tour around the anchorage to see if we can line up a 110-volt portable generator compatible with the compressor. Amazingly, the only generator we can find are 220-volt generators. Ali Europeans. In the end, Ali, the welder, brings his old but reliable 220-volt Bosch generator and an inverter that can down-step the power. But the inverter is only rated for 1000 and, although the compressor will start, it dies when it is put under load.

All this takes an hour and the water has risen quite a bit. Eduardo says he can bring his cabin cruiser over in the morning (he has to work on his boat today) and run the compressor off his onboard stationery onboard generator. He knows that works.

Ali stays for a coffee and a few more stories. By the time he leaves, it is already 1100 hr. and the sky is beginning to look ominous in the north toward Puenta de Americas. As sure as God made little green apples, we are going to get more thunder, lightening and heavy rain. It looks like it will be at least one more day before we leave Panamá City. Maybe more. We resign ourselves, happy that our mishap does not involve injury. If we can’t find the sail we shall just leave anyway with the sails we have.

Iridium satphone

We had the old 9500 model Motorola telephone handset checked out by Rollo at Electronics de Ancón apposite Freeway Laundry in Ancón. We then approached the agents for a number of marine sat services including Vizada, a French company who apparently own the Iridium satellite network. The agents here in Panamá are nearby: Marina Satellite Services SA (Calle Williamson Place, Bldg 752C, La Boca; telephone +507/314.1701; it’s near the YMCA and Freeway Laundry in Balboa-Ancón).

The choices available were as follows:

1. A monthly subscription at $41 per month plus minutes at $1.31 each ($0.79 a minute to another Iridium user). Minimum subscription period: 12 months. Billings monthly, payable via Visa or Mastercard. This works out to $492 just for the subscription but before you have made any calls. Marina Satellite Services SA also require a one-year, $500 deposit for first-time users (repayable at the end of twelve months).

2. Pre-paid cards are also available from one month ($145 for 75 minutes = $1.93/minute) up to 12 months ($698 for 500 minutes= $1.40/minute). No deposit required since the cards are pre-paid.

Iridium is primarily a voice system. But you also get a free subscription and a user ID to, Iridium’s own internet service provider (ISP). Since it is POP mail, you can prepare everything off-line and do an up- and download in one fairly quick flash on-line. (We made the mistake in 2002 of trying to use our Hotmail address. Big mistake! Be careful who you give this address to since they will forget to avoid sending photos and long attached files.)

Since we are planning to sail only until the South Pacific cyclone season starts in November (we hope to find a place to leave Vilisar safely without having to rush through to New Zealand), we decide we were better off to buy a 2-month pre-paid card ($272 for 150 minutes = $1.81) and, if we have the money and the need, renew for another one or two months when the card gets close to expiring. All payments can be made via Visa or Mastercard, and we only need to inform Marina Satellite Services SA in order to extend.

The techies at Marina Satellite loaded the Skyfile email software, and made a few test calls and email transmissions to make sure our phone actually works before we actually leave. It took them several hours, but they were patient in every way. Most of them speak English there, which made the tech conversations a little easier for us. After everything was installed and working, we actually spent another few hours in their waiting room using their wifi while they occasionally brought us coffee and the like.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Las Brisas de Amador Anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá,
Thursday, 04 June 2009

As I write (mid-afternoon), a torrential tropical downpour is cleaning Vilisar’s decks of salt and boatyard grime. The ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) has moved north from near the equator and is nearly right over us. The rainy season has surely arrived. The air is heavy and the view is hazy with water. We watched earlier as black clouds formed over the high peaks farther inland and over the skyscrapers of the city. Then the wind switched from the south to the north, and the rain finally hit us. Surprisingly, since leaving the marine ways at Balboa Yacht Club alongside the Panamá Canal on Monday at noon, we have had several days of relatively sunny, breezy and rain-free weather. We were lucky to have relatively little precipitation while we were on the marine ways so we could get the painting done. That doesn’t mean that it has been pleasant, though: the humidity is extremely high and the whole feeling is sultry. Any movement at all and your clothes are soaked and sweat is gathering in a pool at your feet. This is especially true if you are working, say, in the engine room. Your hands are greasy AND sweaty and it is easy to drop a wrench or a bolt into the bilge. Blink, blink, blop! An all-too-familiar sound to a cruiser’s ears. It comes just before a stream of foul language.

This morning was spent doing the “check-out tango” in preparation for leaving Panamá to sail to French Polynesia. We had arranged for taxi-driver Roosevelt (Tel. 6513.6949) to pick up us at the Las Brisas de Amador dinghy dock (Las Brisas is the still-vestigial new marina on the Flamenco side of the Amador Causeway; they charge $5 a day to land the dink but, unlike at La Playita, here they are at least friendly. They have showers and toilets there, nicely done but still new and a bit rough). Roosevelt knows the check-out routine. We visited the Capitanía de Puerto inside the gated dockyards to get our Zarpe (i.e., the document that says you are leaving Panamá in good standing, which I guess means you have paid all your bills). Many gringos have told us that they are hard-arsed and difficult and will gouge you for a bribe. None of the above! It cost us altogether $9.70 and there were lots of smiles. Later we went to the Migración office at Flamenco to get our passports stamped (no charge for this but do take copies of your Zarpe). Roosevelt charged us $9 an hour for his taxi and guidance. We officially now have only 48 hours to leave the country, though we may stretch this out a bit. Many countries do not bother with a Zarpe any more, and we have been told that French Polynesia will not require them. But Ecuador will want them in The Galapagos, and we plan to make a stop there to get water, fuel and veggies.

While we are out and about, we also visit the Fastener Centre (Centro de Tornillo) and Centro Marino, a marine chandler in town on Avenida National to buy bolts and wing nuts for the dinghy, a few tubes of 3M 5200 sealant and six feet for 1¼-inch water hose to re-do the bilge pump connections (I tightened the pipe clamp too much and cracked the plastic water hose. Now whenever I pump, water squirts all over the batteries. Getting it installed was hot and dirty and requited heating the end of the plastic hose in boling water to get it on over the nipple. I double-clamped and reviewed language I had learned in the army.)

We were completely happy with the work the carpenteros de navales did during the week we spent on the marine ways. Erwin and Ivan Pitti, brothers, and their colleagues were hard workers and clearly knew what they were about. We had already used them back in March to replace the fractured bronze through-bolts holding the rudder in place. Now they have completely re-caulked the hull using cotton and 3M 5200-brand flexible sealant to fill the seams before fairing the whole hull and spray-painting with 2.5 gallons of Sigma-brand 2-part polyurethane white paint. As somebody said, where before we looked like a valero, we now look like a “yate”. While were at it, we had the caprails partially removed and the 35-year-old, rusting, galvanised boat-nails replaced with stainless nails, the caprail replaced with teak and the bronze sail tracks re-set. The shipwrights also made us a new dinghy seat, repaired the footlocker lid in the cockpit and made little wooden dividers for the deep drawers under the navigation table in the main cabin (when heeled over at sea, all the contents tended to slide way to the back, jam up and make opening the drawers almost impossible; the contents also got a soaking if, as up to now, we were taking water through the dried-out caulking. Let’s hope we shall no longer have to pump so much when we are at sea!)

Did I mention that, over at Taboga Island, we also replaced the two no-longer-galvanised and rusting headstays with new stainless steel wire rope? We got sick of getting rust stains on our jib and staysails and on the foredeck. I purchased the made-up stays from Toplicht, a Hamburg-based chandlery for traditional boats and brought them back on the plane a few weeks ago. (21 metres of 8 mm 7x7 wire with two splices and two Norseman eye terminals cost € 403 of which about one-fifth was sales tax.) I got Alex, a Swiss mariner who has grown up on sailboats to help me install everything and to mount our new Luneburg-technology radar reflector on a spreader. That was another $200 for work.

We feel that Vilisar is ready to go to sea again. She is now 35 years old and we have spent a lot on her in the last two years. Somebody once asked Bernard Montessier, the solo, round-the-world sailor, how much it cost to sail. He answered, “Everything you have!” That pretty much captures it. Just here in Panamá City over the last half year we have spent approximately $4,500 for rigging, re-caulking, carpentry work and painting. If we add in the money we spent in Ecuador for a new wormshoe ($800) and new steel fuel tanks ($1,000), you can see why we shall be eating a lot of potatoes on the South Pacific crossing.

But we are going nevertheless! We are topped up with diesel fuel (except for our jerry jugs), we have already bunkered a few hundred dollars worth of canned goods as well as thirty pounds each of potatoes and onions and will shop once more for fresh food before we leave on the weekend, first to Islas Las Perlas (off the Darien Coast of Panamá). This will be sort of a trial run. Then it’s 1,000 Nm on SE through the Doldrums. This could be a slow trip given the southerlies and the northbound swells. But at Isla San Cristóbal (Wreck Bay) in The Galapagos we hope to pick up fuel, water, veggies and good SE Trades for the onward 3,000 Nm to The Marquesas.

We have had our old Iridium satphone inspected and a new battery installed. We still have to buy a prepaid card. I think they are $160 for two months and 300 minutes. This will make everyone at home feel a lot less worried and the phone can be a huge help in an emergency. Rollo at Eletronicos Ancón had done the work. We also took him our old EPRIB sat-alarm signal (if you set it off, the Coast Guard in the U.S.A. will know immediately that has gone off and the location of the instrument to about 20 yards. A big improvement on family waiting until you are overdue by weeks and then having the NZ Air Force fly search patterns for days. These two items are important safety equipment for us.

When Rollo first looked at the EPIRB he said the battery was good but it didn’t seem to be emitting a signal. We left it with him. Later in the day we had a phone call from Kathy’s sister in Los Angeles (she is listed as our EPRIB contact): the Coast Guard had picked up our EPRIB signal and what’s going on? She immediately called us. So I guess either Rollo has got the signal to work or it was already working. That’s good to know! That reminds me too: I must get the Float Plan prepared.

Sunday, 07 June 2009

We had planned to leave today. But we decided to get Alli, a German welder who lives on a sailboat with his wife and daughter, to install stainless-steel handholds around the cockpit. At sea it is difficult to keep from being thrown around whilst steering and awkward to get into and out of the cockpit when the boat is well heeled over. It now looks like we shall leave on Wednesday.

Today, for a change, is a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and a clear view to the skyline. The winds are gentle from the south so perhaps the ITCZ has moved farther north and we are getting Southern Hemisphere weather. I spent the morning trying to get the solar panels to maximise their input. Never want to let the sunshine go to waste. It seems that one of the electro connecting cables is bad, though there is nothing visible. At least both panels actually work well and I shall just need to buy a length of wire. It took two hours just to find the fault.

More when we get to The Galapagos!
Isla Taboga, Panamá, Saturday, May 23, 2009

As much as I love being in remote and beautiful anchorages, I also enjoy it when there is lots of activity around. I don’t mean the class of boating activity that includes weekend water-skiing and sea-do racing. No, I like to see some real ships. I remember being disappointed at the Chicago waterfront: almost totally dead: there were no ships in sight and only just the rarest of sailboats. In the winter, of course, there was less than nothing. Just placid old Lake Michigan. Manhattan’s rivers, on the other hand, were busy. I once stayed for a week or two with a friend whose apartment overlooked the East River. Every time I looked up from my work there was a tug with a barge or a workboat of some sort and even on occasional a submarine heading in or out of the Brooklyn Naval yard. I was always putting myself on board and wondering what would happen next, where the boats were going, what they were up to.

As you get close to the Pacific entrance to the Panamá Canal, Bahía de Panamá becomes a huge parking lot for ships. On either side of the channel and for several miles out to sea past the territorial waters limit (12 miles) merchant ships of all types are anchored: tankers, container and bulk-carriers, refrigeration ships, LNG carriers and large fishing vessels.

Here at Taboga Island there is a steady coming and going of tuna purse-seiners. They are about 150-feet long and cut like a yacht. The bows are high and the decks sweep back in a graceful line. The aft half is the working bit. Nearly amidships is a high tower with a closed-in crows-nest. Behind that come the hydraulic lifting cranes that are rigged out horizontally when the purse-seiners are dragging their nets at sea but are upright in port. Right at the stern when the vessels are anchored is a huge pile of net; the purse. The actual nets are dark in colour but they are ringed and buoyed with yellow floats. When piled, the nets are about 20 or 30 feet high. Finally, a huge bathtub of an auxiliary boat, probably thirty feet in length and very wide and powered by a huge and usually smoking and noisy diesel engine, is stowed for travel on an inclined slope at the absolute stern using the main boat’s winches. When ready for work, this boat is allowed to slide down into the sea. The roof of the bridge-house doubles as a helicopter landing pad. Each tuna boat carries a chopper.

On one of my several trips on the fast passenger panga between the island and Balboa Yacht Club, I met “Spinner”. He’s an American who moved down here when the Venezuelan government purchased a whole fleet of such tuna catchers from a USA company. He came to help the new owners to learn the ropes and to look after their equipment. I was curious about this whole high-tech, industrialised approach to fishing.

Each vessel carries a wide variety of crewmen, from the captain and the operations guys to all the necessary skilled trades necessary to keep a ship and a helicopter in business. The amount of capital tied up in even one of these boats is enormous. The amount of tuna landed and the price of tuna are critical to success. This means, at the boat level, that they cannot afford to be out of action for very long.

At sea, the helicopter ranges out ahead of the ship looking for large schools of porpoises. The schools of tuna swim below the dolphins. The pilot directs the fishing boat toward the schools. As they approach the ship launches the big bathtub off the stern and gets the purse into the water with the hydraulic arms holding the entrance open as wide as possible. The job of the auxiliary is to take the arm of the net away out to one side. Meanwhile, about five fast, one-man outboard (75 hp) speedboats are quickly dropped by crane or winch down the opposite side. They set off in a big circling movement to drive the porpoises (and therefore the tuna) into the deep and wide-open purse. The smacking of the fast speedboats on the water are enough to drive the fish and mammals in a particular direction. I have been told that the speedboat driver also use small “bombs” in the task, as well.

Once in the net tuna and dolphins begin to circle around. The latter will try to escape if they can. There is a ban on killing dolphins; I was also told that there is a marine biologist on each ship and he counts the number of mammals killed. Once a certain limit has been reached, the vessel will have to cease fishing for tuna. So, with the dolphins and tuna (and whatever other fish including sharks and swordfish) are in the net, divers enter the water to help the dolphins escape. They actually physically guide them to the net’s open mouth, and sometimes they actually ride them up to the surface. It’s a dangerous job and every year some divers are killed and many are injured by the turmoil of the fish, by the slashing of swordfish or by the attacks of frenzied sharks.

Eventually the purse is closed and the net is drawn toward the stern of the ship and up the stern ramp. As it comes on board, thousands of fish are dumped out on the deck, thrashing and flailing. I am not sure how the tuna and other fish are killed, but the picture of all this activity in my mind’s eye is impressive. Eventually the tuna are taken below, while the other fish are separated. Sharks are also protected species, but perhaps the fishing vessel keeps the other eating fish.

The helicopter and the speedboats are meanwhile recovered. If it is very rough, it may be that the helicopter will not be able to land on the pitching vessel and will have to be ditched. Pilots are not infrequently lost too. How secure the speedboat drivers are is also an open question.

EAch tuna brings in about $2,800. Given the cost of the ship, the helicopter, all the equipment and the crewmen, it will take a lot of full purses to make a voyage a paying proposition. There have been up to five such boats just here in Taboga at any one time. They come and go with different ships here at different times. I don’t know how many in the fleet. Over closer to the Canal, there are more such ships and I have seen lots of them down at Manta, in Ecuador, which is the biggest tuna port in the world.

Down in Manta, there are many canning factories. The value of even a single fish is enormous and they are guarded like gold. The fishing port in Manta is a secure area. When they drive flatbed trucks loaded with huge, square galvanised-steel tubs of fish, the tubs are stacked up two or three high, covered with a tarpaulin and guarded by at least two security guards armed with shotguns as they motor through the city to the factories on the outskirts. Just one of those fish would be a bonanza for bandits. The commonest form of highway robbery up until recently was for a few guys to jump on board the truck, throw a few fish out onto the street to start a mob scene and to inhibit the police. Then they would drive a bit farther and hijack the whole load. I don’ [t know if carrying armed guards has solved the problem.

It is hard to believe that such industrial-grade fishing is not straining the world tuna levels. I shall have to research that a bit when I can get back on the internet. If so, the investment must be surely in diminishing returns. After all, the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, have already been closed to cod and haddock fishing because they have been nearly fished out by factory fleets from Canada, the U.S.A., and the E.U.

Still, it is fascinating to watch the crews practise their jobs while they lie here at anchor. They are probably also training new crewmen or working up the teams before putting to sea. I watch them launch the bathtub and the speedboats; I see the helicopters dipping and circling around the bay, hovering and then landing on the rooftop of the bridge-house. This morning, one of the big boats pulled up its anchor and steamed away to the south. The helicopter was already launched and had taken off into the distance. Maybe there are tuna just a few miles away. I wonder if there is a particular season for tuna around here. Chuy and Susan told me that soon the grey and sperm whales will be arriving off the coast from Chile and farther south. It is getting too cold for them down there. Maybe tuna and dolphins have the same or similar migration patterns and the tuna fishers follow.

Here's an article I found on SLATE's blogsite.

Tuna's Getting Scarce. Why's It So Cheap?
By Brendan I. Koerner
Posted Thursday, May 15, 2003, at 5:57 PM ET

A new study warns that overfishing has shrunk marlin, swordfish, and tuna populations by 90 percent since 1950. Given the crisis, why does a can of tuna still cost under a buck?

Because the species that end up in your tuna casserole aren't the ones being severely depleted. The Dalhousie University report focuses on bluefin tuna, particularly the southern bluefin, considered a great delicacy by sashimi connoisseurs. Southern bluefin tuna can exceed 400 pounds, though the average weight per catch is closer to 20; that catch weight has declined over the years as commercial vessels glean younger and younger fish from the oceans. The species does not reach reproductive maturity until the age of 8 (bluefin may live to 40), so overfishing has seriously curtailed the replenishment of fishing stocks. (The northern bluefin tuna, which can exceed 1,000 pounds, is also in danger, though a bit less so than its tastier cousin.)

As visitors to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market can attest, a choice southern bluefin can fetch upward of $40,000—a price that makes it an uneconomical choice for, say, Starkist's Chunk Light tuna. That's why big-time canners instead prefer smaller, less flavorful species. Albacore, the so-called chicken of the sea, is what you'll get if the tin says "white meat." Also popular are skipjack and yellowfin. The former is considered the world's most widely consumed tuna species, and cans full of these species are often marked "light tuna." All of these tuna variants mature relatively quickly, with reproduction starting at the one-year mark for skipjack. That means the aggressive commercial harvest has had less severe consequences for these early bloomers. The casserole-grade species are also much smaller, with the average skipjack weighing in at 7 pounds. Smaller fish tend to be more numerous since they require less nourishment to survive and reproduce.

That's not to imply that overfishing hasn't affected fish prices for normal consumers. Once considered a cheap protein source for the world's poor, much fresh fish is now too expensive for all but affluent diners. A recent study by the WorldFish Center estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, prices for tilapia, carp, and other low-grade fish could jump by 70 percent, in real terms, by 2020. On the canned front, albacore, skipjack, and yellowfin stocks are generally considered "fully exploited," meaning that a marked increase in annual catches could, eventually, put an end to your supermarket's two-for-a-dollar deals.

Bonus Explainer: Another side effect of overfishing is the gastronomical interest in species previously disdained. Restaurant habitués will note the appearance of mahi-mahi on menus over the past decade; previously, the species was deemed a "rat of the sea"—too low-brow to be served in polite company.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Ransom Myers and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.
Balboa, Panamá, Wednesday, May 27, 2009

(N.B. I still have not got the photos for this blog sorted out and time is now running short before we leavbe Panama for The Galapagos ande French Polynesia. Will add photos when I get a chance.)

Vilisar is back on the marine ways at Balboa Yacht Club to complete the work planned for her when she was up for a few days in March. Back then Erwin Pitti and his helpers from the commercial yard at Vacamonte not only repaired the pintels and gudgeons for the rudder (with new bronze bolts), but they also caulked all the planking below the waterline.

Our work programme for the next six days consists of:
Stripping off the old and loose bottom paint. We are using chemical stripper until we get down to a good base, then wet-sanding with #80 paper. This work is being done by “Ricardo”, a fast-talking (and, as it turns out, semi-gangsta) local who has rounded up a few other guys; they use chemical stripper and hand-scrapers.
Re-caulking the topside planks. The bottom planks are now quite tight and we are taking no water at all as long as we are level. As soon as we heel over under sail, however, water begins to trickle down the inside of the topside planks, and we have to man the pumps rather more often at sea than makes us feel comfortable. Over Vilisar’s thirty-five years, the caulking has simply dried out. Up in the dry desert climate of Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, I remember once looking out from inside the cabin and seeing a thin strip of light.

While Ricardo and his boys (Luis & Luis) scraped yesterday, Erwin and Ivan Pitti et al. cleaned out all the seams on the starboard side; Erwin did not want to start driving cotton when there is a big chance of an afternoon downpour to soak the material. This morning they are already at work caulking. The familiar and to me pleasant, rhythm of mallets hitting caulking irons as the cotton is driven deep into the seams is accompanying our morning coffee. Ricardo’s crew will show up at 0800 and we can add scraping noises to the background.

Stripping the old white paint off the topsides and repainting. This paint will be ground off with heavy sanders once the caulking is done and the seams filled smooth with 3M 5200 epoxy sealant (5200 is more flexible than other materials; damned expensive, of course). The two-part polyurethane paint will be sprayed on later. Erwin Pitti swears we will look just like a brand-new boat. I joke with him that Vilisar will look just like a plastic yacht.

While they are working, the carpenteros de navales identify one piece of planking that has somehow split lengthwise and now some rot has set in. In my early days on the boat when I once discovered a piece of rot, I was in a real funk. But a shipwright in Port Townsend, WA, just laughed and said, unlike fibreglass boats which seem to fall apart all at once after 40-50 years (without there being much that you can do about it), if your wooden boat is stoutly built, no rot develops in the first 3-5 years and you are keeping an eye on things, you will probably be replacing bits and pieces of wood for at least 100 years but the boat will be basically sound. HIs word in God´s ear, as the Muslims say.

Anyway, the shipwrights use a chisel and hammer to cut out a clean, bright-yellow and still-aromatic section of Alaskan (yellow) cedar planking about two feet long and just forward of the cockpit. This also exposes the side of our new fuel tank (a chance to inspect for rust: Nada). They will cut a new plank out of mahogany and scarf it in flush.

Removing the caprails amidships. This is a big job for perhaps not much return. But, something is bleeding rust down the sides of the boat, and there is hardly any point in repainting the topsides if this corrosion cum staining problem is not identified and taken care of. At present it seems to be only cosmetic. But it may indicate something more serious out of sight. In addition, one of the bronze sail tracks has pulled out just under the normal strain of the jib sheets, and I don’t know whether they are through-bolted or held in place with large lag bolts. So, we need to get a look inside, remove the corroding bits and make sure we don’t have any rot at the top of the vessel’s frames (ribs).

Ivan Pitti, also a carpentero navale (his brother, Erwin, calls him,“El Terrible”,) is working with his helper to get the oaken caprail off. They use wooden wedges to lift the nailed-on caprail. One of the caprails has a bit of rot underneath it and we decide to replace it with a new teak plank. The caprails’ vertical side-covers are in excellent shape. Everything inside (i.e., underneath the caprail) seems to be in good shape except the original galvanised square boat nails that were used for horizontal fasteners (the whole boat was originally fastened with hot-dipped galvanised boat nails drifted over). This part of the caprail often gets seawater dousings when we are heeled over. The galvanisation has therefore worn off over the years and the nails are bleeding. This accounts for the rust stains down the side.

All the wood under the caprail is a dark, dark colour. George Friend, the boat’s builder, told me that he had creosoted everything wooden he could get his mittens on when the boat was being built between 1970 and 1974. ¨Lot’s of times!¨ That creosote had kept the wood healthy. Vilisar’s frames are only 11 ½ inches apart (i.e., 11 ½ “centres”), which makes her that much stronger. Between the vertical tops of the frame-ends there is in each case another, horizontal block of wood, which adds even more lateral strength and backing for the caprail and sail tracks. The rusty nails were only used to keep these blocks of cedar in place. Unfortunately, these blocks have to be dug out to get at the nails, which is a bit labour-intensive. When replacing the wood blocks, stainless steel nails will be used.

The bronze sail-tracks are through-bolted with bronze bolts and nuts and are backed with a strong piece of creosoted wood. I guess one of the nuts worked itself loose and allowed the sail track to pull up. Also, as mentioned, at the lowest point of the caprail (where water tends to gather), some rot has set in and the caprail will be replaced with teak there. The other caprail planks are fine.

So, currently we are living on a beached boat with 4-6 guys working only inches from our beds. We plan to be here all week and hope that we have enough time to get everything done. In addition, since it much, much easier to re-provision when you don’t have to ferry stuff out to an anchored yacht, we want to get as much as possible of that done while we are still here. Much easier than trying to row everything out to the anchored boat later. Kathy made a solo expedition yesterday afternoon to Machetazo, one of the bigger chain supermercados here to start the process. She came back in a taxi loaded with long-term goodies including toilet paper, paper towels, sponges, noodles, Spam, etc., etc., etc. We are provisioning for six months, so you can imagine the problem of purchasing and storing. She said she felt completely overwhelmed at times with so much to buy and so unsure about prices, etc. that she was tempted to give it all up.

We go to the bank every day and hit our two bank accounts for as much as they will cough up. This is going to be an expensive week! We try not to worry about it. But, that is easier said than done.

If we add in the new fuel tanks made in Ecuador as well the new stainless forestays installed last week to what we are doing this week, we shall be spending altogether about $6,000 on Vilisar. This doesn’t even count her new suit of tan bark sails ($3,500). She is now 35 years old, of course, and we have gotten used to the idea that she needs new “systems” (fuel tanks, sails, etc.) and larger maintenance projects (caulking, caprails, rudder gudgeons, etc.)

We have lived aboard and sailed her now for nearly eight years, about a quarter of her floating life and, we presume, full time, more than any owners before us. And we are about to embark upon a long sea voyage across the South Pacific. All these factors combined make the investment understandable. But, it’s still a lot of lolly!

Ahead of us are specific costs for the crossing including, fuel, provisions for 4-6 months, lubricants, a phone card for our old Iridium sat phone, electronics checks for our EPIRB, repair of our electronic tiller pilot, etc. etc. etc.

I think I’ll stop now and lie down for a while!