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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Yesterday we sailed to Isla Chapera, seeing whales all throughout the
day. Our anchorage was around the corner from the TV set of "Survivors."
The people live in a huge house. They are about 2 miles from the next
island, which has a direct flight to Panama City, so they are not roughing
it that badly! Today we are sailing again toward PC. We used the engine
yesterday for an hour, and it didn't use any oil--don't understand that

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Isla Pedro Gonzalez, Perlas Islands, Panamá, Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Position at Tuesday, 28 July 2009, 0900 hr.: N 08º 25.21' W 79º 06.40'

This is really becoming a pattern! Are we ever going to get out of here?
Here we were yesterday morning keyed up to up anchor and depart to head
offshore to The Marquesas with a possible stop in The Galapagos.
Everything is stowed. There is a reasonable N breeze of about 5-10 kts to
scoot us south. All last night the skies south of Pedro Gonzales Island
were alive with almost continuous lightening. But the new, sliver of a
moon sank behind the point a few hours after sunset and the stars were out
for us. We woke at dawn and started making last minute chores. I leaned
into the engine compartment and checked the oil level. Nothing! No oil
showing on the dipstick at all!

The engine seemed to function just fine on the way down, although,
admittedly, it was starting to run hotter near the end. Now I suspect why.
I get out a flashlight and lean in over the engine. There has been some
splashing of oil on the side where the filler cap is, but this not
altogether unusual. I can't figure it out. But I notice that the under the
engine, the water seems dark and oily. That's where the engine oil has
probably gone.

I pour in a gallon and a half of SAE 40, our reserve for the trip. That
brings the level up to the top line of the dipstick. I check everything
again for leaks but can't see anything. I clean all around the oil filter
and the engine room so I can more readily identify oil spray or leaks and
then wait for a couple of hours to see if the dipstick level drops or I
can see or hear leaking. But, no change in the levels and no visible signs
of oil loss.

After two hours I start the engine, run it for five minutes and watch
again for leaks. Nada!

I changed the oil while we were on the marine ways at Balboa Yacht Club,
substituting SAE 40 for the SAE 15W-40. That latter oil seemed to
evaporate in this hot climate. Enrique, the mechanic at the Club, where
they use small air-cooled Lister engines in the small work boats, told me
to stick with SAE 40; others said even to go with SAE 50 down here. And
certainly the engine seemed to run cooler and quieter. But, now the SAE 40
is disappearing too. So I guess there might have been a leak earlier but
we have not run the engine for a lot of hours at a time (8 hours to get to
the island).

So, now what? Kathleen is depressed, partly a result of the seasick
medication she has taken to get ready for the first couple of days at sea.
I am still trying to figure everything out and what to do. Trying to put a
happy face on things, Kathleen says she is happy to be in the islands for
a few days. But it is disappointing not to be leaving. Damn!

We spend the whole day here while we doze and read and let various options
go through our heads. A wooden fishing boat arrives at high tide and
anchors quite close to us. "Los Emilios", it's called and it's painted
grey, yellow and black. Very handsome! There are 10 or 12 guys working
aboard here, mostly young black men. Once anchored on a very long rope
line attached to a fisherman anchor, half the crew heads to the beach for
a swim and to scour for clams in the "longboat", i.e., a wooden boat with
an outboard. They return later and the small boat takes 6 or 8 men off to
the village. We are so close to the fishing boat that we can hear the
clicking of dominos as the remaining crew relax under the aft awning.
There are other fishing boats dotted along the coast of this bay. They set
their drift lines and nets at night but, according to Alex, The Russian,
they don't fish at high or low tide. They come in to rest. Towards dark
they collect up their crewmen from town, everyone has a pee over the side,
the skipper runs the bilge pumps for 15 minutes until the water turns
dark, the diesel engines are started and three men go forward to pull in
the anchor. No windlass needed when you have so much muscle power. We wave
back and forth and they give us the thumbs up as they go slowly forward
and soon they chugging out into the Del Rey Strait, the diesel engines
giving a low rumble.

This brings us back to the rumble of our own diesel. Or lack of it, in
this case. We sit in the cockpit as the sun goes down and hatch out a
plan. Clearly we need to get back to Panamá City and get the mechanical
problem sorted out. We have several contacts around and there are even
mechanics in the cruiser "fleet" looking for work. Probably none of the
latter group has ever seen a Lister, whereas there are local mechanics who
still work on them. I assume the problem is a leaking seal and, since I
cannot see the leak, it must be at the back and/or underneath the motor.
This is bad since, although the problem is not huge, getting at the seal
probably means pulling the engine. We have already been through this in
Ecuador. Wacho pulled the engine off its mounts using a come-along
suspended from the boom and wires let down through a two-inch hole cut
into the bridge above the engine. He turned the whole engine around inside
the engine room and worked at the back of it when it was then sticking out
into the cabin.

We seem to be able to use the engine for short periods, so the leak is not
apparently huge. Five or six hours total? We should be able to sail back
to Panamá City, using the engine only for entering anchorages.
Unfortunately, we are now out of oil to keep adding to the engine. Oh,
well! We are a sailboat, after all.

Kathleen puts part of her reaction to the situation down to her seasick
meds. This morning she is much more cheerful. It's a disappointment but
not the end of the world even if we don't make it to French Polynesia this
season. We can hang out between Panamá City and The Perlas until after
Christmas and then leave. Even though we're a sailboat, since we have an
engine, we should have it in good working order. But, we need time - and
money - to get the engine repaired. We used up all our funds including
loading our credit card in order to get out of here. With time in
hand, Kathleen should be able to get some work online and I should get a
couple of pension checks into the bank. But, unless the problem is minor
(what boat problems are minor?), it looks like leaving for French
Polynesia is off for now. Well, we have "tons of food", as Kathleen points

The breezes this morning are light and straight from Isla Contadora, where
we have decided to head as a Zwischenstation. On the other hand, if the
winds stay N or NNE, we could sail close-hauled right back to Panamá City,
albeit probably rather slowly. An overnighter.

Breakfast consists of eggs scrambled with the leftover sweet-potato, onion
and celery salad from last night. Even better this morning! There are
several fishing boats rafted up near us this morning again. The guys call
and wave. A cheerful lot! That's good.

"Another day, another plan!" says Kathleen.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Day 1 (Sunday, July 26, 2009)

Position at Sunday, 26 July 2009, 1800 hr.: N 08º 25.21' W 79º 06.40'

We thought we never get out of Panamá City! Each time we tried to leave,
something else would happen to delay our departure. Of course, the main
event was going on the rocks at Isla Taboga and waiting around to get onto
the marine ways for repairs. Once that was done there seemed to be a
myriad of little issues like the fractured bronze hinge-pins on the
skylight, re-wiring the solar panels with bigger wire, etc. etc.

We had finally set Saturday as the date to leave. We were so spooked by
everything that we decided just to think about getting Vilisar moving
again and only planning for a one-day passage to the Islas Perlas. It's a
favourite cruising ground and not all that far from Panamá City. But it is
a totally different world, remote, uninhabited or barely-populated
islands, beaches and rocks and palm trees. No more traffic. No more dirt
and fumes. No more late night blaring music. Most importantly, no more
hesitation. Once we were out of Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, we could
skip the Perlas and keep right on going. We both like to make a shorter
passage to start with, just to break the suction, so to speak, to finish
stowing, test some boat-operating equipment (the windvane steering or
tiller pilot, for example), to clean the bottom in clean water instead of
the crud that you find so close to Panamá City.

So Saturday it was. Friday had been one of the most humid and oppressive
days we've experienced here yet. I went into town by car with Roger, the
skipper of the French vessel S/V Kerzo. He had taken me to a machine shop
a few days earlier to get the pins replaced on the bronze hinges from the
skylight. The workshop was way across town on Transistmica, a horrid,
under-built, four-lane corridor of big box stores and side streets full of
small shops and offices. It's the American model of city planning: no real
centre and plenty of urban sprawl. It's rather like going to Vernon or
Watts. We had to return on two different days to get the hinges at last.
$10 for pulling one pin! He hadn't bothered to renew the two pins in the
other hinge though asked. I didn't bother to discuss things. We wanted out
of here!

So, Saturday it was. We would stay on the boat, get the dinghy up and
stowed in the morning and take off for Isla Pedro Gonzalez, just under 40
Nm away to the SE. But, once again we were defeated. The sky was,
unusually for this time of the year, totally clear. This means the sun was
intensive and the thermometer was over 30ºF by 0800. We did manage to get
the front half of the Chameleon dinghy on the deck before we both pooped
out. The back half still tied to the side of the boat, we decide to load
it towards dusk and be ready to leave at dawn the next day.

We are both feeling rather weak and take a day off. Where we are anchored,
nearly every dinghy has to pass us to get to or from the dock. How many
times did we have to hear the question, "I thought you were leaving
today?" or "Still here?" But, in the afternoon we watch one of the 250
movies that Tom and Beata from the Polish vessel S/V Luka had copied onto
our external hard drive. We keep below in the shade with the awning still
rigged until about 1700 when we appear to finish stowing the dinghy and
rigging the sails for departure.

So, Sunday it is.

We are both awake at first light about 0530. There is a gentle breeze from
the north, which is what we have been counting on. At 0615 the engine is
started and we are weighing the slime-coated anchor and making a huge mess
of the foresails, the chain and most of the foredeck. Never mind! We will
be dropping our Bruce anchor onto a sandy bottom in the islands and
getting it cleaned up there. We drive out past S/V Batwing (Diane waves us
goodbye) and S/V Kerzo, where Roger is sleeping on the deck. He waves us
farewell too and we promise to try and meet in the Marquesas.

A few minutes later the sails are up for the first time since March and we
are headed ESE to catch the land breeze. It takes a little while to sort
out various kinks in the sheets and halyards - one of the reasons we
didn't want to make a night passage to the islands. In fact, however, we
have no real problems and Vilisar is soon cruising along quietly at about
3 kts. We enjoy the cool morning air with the panorama of Manhattan-like
Panamá City off to our port. The city is coming to life.

Almost as soon as we have the sails up we are joined by a pod of big
dolphins. They are cruising for food in groups but some individuals swarm
the boat and, where I am standing on the bowsprit, one big fellow cruises
directly below our bowsprit. Kathleen announces that this is a good omen.
Never having learned the art of deciphering omens to the same degree, I
take her word for it.

With 40 Nm to go, we know we won't make Isla Pedro Gonzalez by nightfall
if we rely only on the sails. This is the worst part of coastal sailing.
Since you have to make a port by dark (unless you are quite familiar with
it and want to risk a night approach), and since the winds near the coast
are fluky (mainly land and sea breezes), you are condemned to use the
engine. Oh, well. We enjoy the sailing whilst we can. About 1000 we decide
that instead of 3 knots we need to be making 5 knots if we are to make it
before dark. We pull in the big jib and the drop the staysail, leaving the
mainsail as a steadying sail. We throw on the Lister. The sea is basically
calm and, any wind still around, is quartering. So we are not bashing to
windward into short, steep waves. Lister doesn't like that; Vilisar's
motoring speed drops rapidly when conditions are adverse, as we were able
to confirm on the way up here from Ecuador last Christmas. Now however, we
toot along with an easy 5 kts.

At one point when I go onto the bridge to check around, I see a vessel off
to the SSW at about 2 Nm. Out of curiosity I look at her through
binoculars. To my great surprise I see a whale breach right up out of the
water between our two boats at a distance of at least a mile. Soon one or
two more do the same thing. I call to Kathleen excitedly.

After the show is over, we discuss once again if we might perhaps skip
Isla Pedro Gonzalez and just start for the Galapagos right now. But, in
the end, we opt for the island. The venerable Navico 5000 tiller pilot
takes over as the sun climbs in the clear sky and the heat again becomes
intensive. We retire below to the main cabin berths and set daytime
watches. Every 10-15 minutes one of us goes out and has a thorough
butchers, checks the compass bearing and, finally, checks the oil pressure
and engine temperature. Friend Lister is loud and rattles and rumbles
away, liking the new SAE 40 oil we now use that keeps her temperature
down. The main sail slats occasionally in the gentle swells but it does
not bother us.

We are old salts again, back aboard a real cruising boat (instead of a
houseboat) and looking forward now to a long passage and settling rapidly
into our shipboard routines. The depression and lows of anchoring in
Panamá City are behind us. "Harbours rot ships and men." With any sort of
luck we shall reach Wreck Bay on San Cristóbal Island in The Galapagos in
about 14 days.

We are going to head due south from the Bay of Panamá until we reach about
N 2º, before turning West (but westing as much as possible, depending on
winds). The Virtual Passage Planner says there is a good south-bearing
current if we go between Isla Malpelo off Colombia and the mainland. But
of course, at some point it meets the quite strong North-bearing, cold
northern branch of the Humboldt Current. Wouldn't mind missing that.

At all times we shall be trying to get south of the squally and windless
ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone or The Doldrums) as quickly as
possible, even though we are bound to meet winds with a southerly
component thereafter. These will help us once we bear more West. We also
expect the air and water temperatures to drop as we near the Humboldt
Current's influence.


Slowly Isla Pedro Gonzalez materialises out of the haze ahead of us. We
pass other Perlas islands portside in the medium distance. Pedro Gonzalez
has a large and well-protected bay in front of a small village of 400 or
500 souls. We decide to drop anchor behind a small island lying off the
main island about a mile from the village. We don't intend to launch the

Our first attempt at anchoring is not satisfactory; we fear that the
current extreme, new-moon tides might leave us high and dry in the night;
we pick up the anchor and move a few hundred yards. The new spot is also a
bit better shelter from the light NE breeze that are currently cooling us
down. Anything but a strong E wind will not bother us. No bad weather is
anticipated in the foreseeable future here. By 1730 the anchor is down at
high tide in 25 feet of clear water over sand.

Kathleen sits in the cockpit becoming frustrated at entering waypoints for
the onward voyage to The Galapagos while I fix us drinks and think about
dinner. Lunch was cole slaw, peppers and carrots with an Asian dressing; a
lot of our fresh produce is already going off and we have to use it up
before we start on the tins. The remnants of the cole slaw will make up
the basics of our stir fry for tonight along with some chopped-up choriso
sausage. But first a (warm) beer.

So, I guess the voyage/adventure has finally begun!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Panamá City, Panamá, Thursday, July 23, 2009

After my blog yesterday about the Honduran military putsch, I was criticised for supporting the elected government of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. “After all, he tried to extend his term of office without changing the constitution” (which does not allow this).

The truth is that President Zelaya was elected for one term on a reform ticket. He has about six months left in his term of office; the constitution allows only one consecutive term as president. Zelaya, however, was preparing to conduct a non-binding plebiscite, i.e., a straw vote of the people, as to whether they would like to have the constitution re-written by a democratically-elected constitutional convention. As mentioned, whatever the results of the plebiscite, they would be non-binding. This proved to be far too threatening to the old rulers.

The Honduras Army was given the task of carrying out the balloting. The General in command refused and President Zelaya thereupon relieved him of command for disobeying rightful orders. The Supreme Court, strangely, adjudicated the dismissal, though not the reason for his resistance, as unconstitutional. Supported by local and international business interests, i.e., the same old elite that has always run Honduras (if evidence made available in D.C. is to be believed, both in part for the benefit of, and with the active backing and assistance of the U.S. Military, the State Department and the White House. Anyway, the Army then arrested President Zelaya and escorted him to the Costa Rican frontier. When he tried to return, the airport runways were blocked by military vehicles.

Meanwhile, citizens in Honduras went onto the streets to demonstrate for their political and civil rights and ‘their’ president. The Army responded by shooting people, arresting and beating others, imposing night-time curfews, closing down critical media - in other words, the usual panoply of tactics regularly used by putchistas who have no broad support amongst the citizenship. Remember, these officers all attended the infamous School of the Americas which has its campus in their own country.

The Honduras military immediately hired some high-powered lobbyists in Washington, guys with close ties to the Clintons, for example. They have already bamboozled most U.S. readers into thinking that President Zelaya illegally extended his term of office, when all he did was propose a non-binding plebiscite to see if the voters wanted to discuss a new constitution.

American meddling in Honduras and Nicaragua has been documented beyond any doubt. Honduras was the home of the famous School of the America, where military officers were trained to stop worrying about attacks from outside and to focus their violence on their fellow citizens, who were seen to be traitors because they wanted civil rights, social progress, a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power. It is time to correct the misleading information being put about.

More importantly, President Obama’s Administration must quickly condemn this breach of democracy, and if necessary cut the 70% of Honduran trade that is done with the U.S.A. (even if this hurts U.S. commercial interests), freeze Honduran bank accounts, etc. It is time for the U.S.A. finally to come down on the side of democracy, civil rights and the rule of law in Latin America.

Nearly all of Latin America has been becoming more and more truly democratic over the past 15-20 years. Where electorates have spoken, the overall trend nearly everywhere has been to mildly-leftwing governments (i.e., not Castro-ite, soviet-style governments). This has resulted not only in much broader support amongst the heretofore largely disenfranchised populaces. It has also led to much better economic numbers, e.g., a reduction in poverty; more kids in school; better healthcare; much improved housing and infrastructure, etc. etc. Mr. Zelaya, the democratically-elected president of Honduras, is also a leader with such a mandate despite the fact that he has not actually made much headway. He is obviously seen as a threat by the old elites and their military henchmen. The old elites have traditionally maintained excellent contacts to all U.S. administrations; they know how to massage the message.

Nothing in these progressive trends across Latin America should be understood as threatening to the U.S.A. since, indeed, the U.S. electorate itself has asked for just these measures by electing Obama and a Democratic Congress. Despite the democratically driven reform movement across Latin America, the old elites are still there. Unless Washington joins the E.U. and the OAS in demanding an end to the putsch and a return of President Zelaya to Honduras and to office, the forces of darkness will be strengthened and the democratic trend perhaps stifled in its puberty.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Panamá City, Panamá, Wednesday, July 22, 2009

For decades Latin America has been becoming more and more democratic. It has been a difficult path and the roots of democracy are not yet deep in some places. From Ronald Reagan onwards, U.S. administrations have generally been more supportive of the forces of darkness than the forces of light. Democratization in Latin America went apace nevertheless, though by no means smoothly, i.e., without much U.S. support and frequently with active U.S. opposition. Hondurans and Nicaragua are cases in point. Will the military putsch in Honduras now turn the clock back?

For a generation now Latin America foreign policy has been dictated by Cuban-exiles and their supporters from the vote-sensitive state of Florida. Obama was careful not to alienate them when he addressed them during the presidential campaign. On the other hand, addressing Latino leaders he promised a new era of relations with Latin America, a return in essence to the Good neighbour policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Honduran coup initiators are highly dependent on the U.S.A. and the Obama Administration has so far been wishy-washy in its comments about the event. Every other country in Latin America condemned it outright. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says nothing, which is tantamount to silent approval. Her Latin America advisors are anyway very close to the Honduran military. There is obviously some lack of agreement between State and The White House. This is not of itself tragic. But the two opinion centres represent bad and worse.

In addition to barring the democratically-elected President Zelaya from returning to the country, the military government in Honduras has been shooting people, denying them any expression of political opinion and closing down critical newspapers and television stations. There is no way the military can in fact stay in power without repression. Washington needs to condemn it strongly if Honduras is not to encourage similar repressive actors around the Hemisphere. Hugo Chávez has done nothing like it and he still gets only either half-hearted, nose-holding handshakes or outright name-calling from Washington.

The democracies in Latin America need the U.S.A. to deny recognition to the military coupists, freeze their bank accounts in the U.S.A. and generally take a hard line against such unacceptable political actions. And do it now!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá, Thursday, 16 July

Blistering hot today with clear skies and very little breeze. Around 0800
went ashore with the dinghy and our four 5-gallon water jugs. We had
learned of a water tap or two in the parking area. Now that the government
has torn down the showers and other small buildings at the dock, it's no
longer possible to get water right at the dock.

In one of my last blogs I wrote about the visit of recently-inaugurated
President of Panamá, Ricardo Martinelli. More information has come to
light since my rather cynical comments about what he might have been up to
in visiting Las Brisas de Amador, the site of a future marina. The
newspapers have been full of the event. In front of the TV cameras, it
goes without saying, Snr. Martinelli swept into Las Brisas and other
marina projects, evicted the tenants, personally drove in big signs saying
Propiedad de Estado (Property of the State). He announced that the
developers, a wealthy man named Figali and three other real estate moguls,
had created an illegal landfill for a huge parking lot instead of building
a marina, and were in arrears for taxes to the tune of around $30 million.
A deadline was set for payment.

Martinelli recently won a strong electoral victory. A self-made man (food
retailing chains), he too is personally fabulously wealthy. It is said
that he refused to accept any campaign contributions so he could assume
power without political debts. He vowed to clean up corruption and make
funds available for programmes for the poor. As from the day of his
"evento", 'our' docks became free for everyone and anyone, including us
dinghy-bound cruisers. There was some confusion at first as the Navy had
gone round in their pangas to tell cruisers that they had to leave, even
though anchoring has nothing to do with the marina project and cruisers
have all paid for Panamanian "Cruising Permits", which one presumes allows
one to anchor anywhere. The next day, one cruiser was even hit up for five
dollars by one of the policemen who are now guarding the project. A rather
typical Latin American action.

But the cruiser lodged a complaint at police headquarters, the copper/perp
was marched in, was forced to cough up the bribe and received a wigging.
The cruiser was informed by the police lieutenant that such actions were
totally contrary to government intention, and that we were welcome to use
the docks for free. Not a very typical Latin American scene.

A pity that the showers and toilets at the head of the pier were torn
down, but this was no doubt meant as warning to Figali and his ilk. El
Presidente's actions were greeted with joy by demonstrators in the city
and by the press. Editorials pointed to a couple of other hotel and marina
projects that stink to high heaven. Ever resourceful, cruisers soon
located water taps around the parking lot and, although it means a lot of
jug-lugging, we joined in and topped up our tanks.

The anchorage is still swept by squalls nearly every afternoon. The two
tropical storms off the Mexican coast are causing large waves right down
to the equator and some of these swells have been rolling into the
anchorage. Combined with the squalls, we found ourselves yesterday far too
close to another sailboat. After the winds and waves died down therefore,
we pulled up the anchor and moved in closer to the dock where the swells
are much less noticeable, and from where we can reach the dock easily in
our oar-powered dinghy.

Somewhere along the way, we broke a switch on the electrical panel. No
spare on board, so will go into town tomorrow to buy a new one and to
acquire a length of garden hose so that we can use the taps more easily on
shore. Then we intend to leave for Islas Perlas on Saturday. This might
well turn out to be the first step to Los Galapagos and French Polynesia.
In a way we are tricking ourselves since, whenever we tried to leave in
the past for the longer voyage, something has happened. We shall do the
little test run of 35 Nm and decide then whether to go or not to go.
Nothing is really keeping us now that the Iridium phone has been repaired.
But, we have become overcome by inertia. The prospect of a long, long sea
voyage is sometimes just too overwhelming. Just breaking the suction here
and getting out on the open water should help.

Roger, a French fisherman and cruiser, showed us an email he had received
from a friend who had stopped at The Galapagos. He wound up paying about
$1,000 in fees, charges and whatnot. Maybe we shall bypass The Galapagos
after all. It will depend upon our fuel and water needs. We can call it
when we get closer.

Marine Satellite Services in Balboa has been really good at supporting us.
Our old phone handset needed quite a bit of repairs. But the technician,
Manuel, just replaced the electronics in it basically for nothing by
cannibalizing another phone. Bless him!

So, this will be our first attempt to post a blog using the satphone. We
are sending the blog (by satphone email) to my mother-in-law who will post
it for us on Blogger.Com, and also email it directly to various friends.
We shall see how this works out. The free email software that comes with
Iridium saves a lot of money since you can prepare emails offline and
complete a mail exchange in only a few seconds. A voice call ticks away at
$1.81 a minute. We will blog every few days along the way.

Stay tuned to this site!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Alex, a cruiser from Odessa in The Ukraine (although he still refers to it
as "Russia") helped me with some electrical work. He's always in need of
some ready cash and we now have all the minor-but-irritating electrical
things functioning. He also convinced be to re-wire the solar panels with
6- or 8-guage wire instead of the 12-guage I used. "Sooner rather than
later", he said in his Russian accident. He seemed to think it was
dangerous. Of course, it's Saturday afternoon, and the electrical shops
close in the early afternoon. We go ashore to catch a bus to Do It Center
("Doeetcenna') but the workers are knocking off and the busses are too
full to take us. We decide to go tomorrow morning (Sunday) and leave
Sunday night.

Alex says we should definitely leave in the middle of the night for Las
Islas Perlas as we would have light land breezes pushing us the whole way
rather than being becalmed if we leave in on the land breezes in the morning
and encountering adverse sea breezes in the afternoon. Also, we would
arrive in daylight and that would be one less worry.

Another postponement. Kathy is totally depressed and ready to sink the
boat. Fortunately we run into Jakob, the slightly strange but charming
Swiss pensioner who has been soloing for years. He is always cheerful and
always insists on buying one a beer. Kathleen talks to Juan, a 26-year-old
Nicaraguan who crewed on a French yacht to Panamá and then was stiffed for
his wages. Very nice guy. Fortunately, he has some options and will be
crewing on a Brazilian catamaran.

If we get the wire we want tomorrow, we can do the solar-panel and nav-
light rewiring in the islands. It's no big deal.

Did I say to stay tuned?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, Panamá, City, Panamá, sábado, 11 de julio de 2009

Yepp, we’re still here. We thought we might finally get out of here tomorrow, Sunday. Kathy even went with an Australian cruising friend (Barbara off S/V Quiamarla) to the wholesale fruits and vegetables market, normally the last stop before pulling up the dinghy and the anchor.

Meanwhile, I go to the satphone place to try and work out the technical bugs, to try to get the computer at last to speak to the phone. Stand-alone, the phone, at least, works. But, there is a broken bit in the handset or the connector or something. ¡No problemo! After all, it’s only a question of money and time! And we have lots of one of them. The long and short of it is that the satphone won't be fixed until after the weekend, will cost us some money, and our leaving is therefore postponed once again. Is there a message in here somewhere? If so, it is not coming by satphone. Or is it?

Maybe we should just hang around, earn some more money, add things bit by bit to the boat and head for French Polynesia in a few weeks. In one sense we don't really care because we have to hang out somewhere until after March (cyclone season) anyway. On the other hand, how often can you get keyed up and provisioned about a big voyage and then be let down and become bummed out again?

I can deal with the unpleasant weather here. But, everyone eventually becomes sick of the grasping attitudes of everyone that cruisers seem to come in contact with here: taxi drivers; shop keepers; marina operators and staff. They all seem to be trying to rip off the gringos. At the bottom of the social and economic heap, the poor and working poor can at least be understood to be desperate for survival. The poor are everywhere. The city slums are atrocious, large and dangerous. Even the police tell you to stay out of them even by day. Most taxis are in beat-up condition and one assumes that the drivers are just barely making it. The rich (e.g. marina owners) are fat cats and largely invisible. Owner-managers don't exist much here in Panamá. So marina owners don’t actually manage the business day to day and are therefore shielded from contact with cruisers who are dissatisfied or outraged by the poor service, tacky plant or outrageous prices. Or all three together. The rich, of course, float above it all. They are seriously rich here, too. And, of course, they have political clout: Snr. Martinelli, the new Presidente himself, for example, was given a personal guided tour of the marina-in-construction where we are currently anchored; everyone expects that each one-term president has only five years to enrich himself at the nation’s expense. Will he be cut into the action at the marina ‘development’ as part of his retirement plan. Meanwhile, if he so desires, he can run interference for the projects.

Anything to do with marinas or docking is far more expensive than in Canada or the U.S.A., where marinas are either county or city-run (and therefore fairly transparent for the users and run on well-known rules), or they are privately-owned and there is a manager who has to deal face-to-face with the customers. For an understanding of the situation here, the lady who owns Las Brisas Marina with associated real estate development actually leases the whole little Isla Perico (for a tiny rental charge) from the state, and sub-leases to all kinds of shops and restaurants at a huge mark-up. Presumably she comes to the cheap lease agreement with the government through political clout and the old-boy network. If things run true to history, she is very likely related by blood, marriage or just casual sex with the president, the minister responsible for granting permits or with whomever is the critical person in the chain of mutual-masturbation called the political class. And it sure ain’t your taxi driver and definitely it ain’t the little employee who collects your money at the dock. The owner-dudette also owns a 110-foot white motor-yacht called, appropriately enough, Princepessa with a permanent crew of 4-5. That means a lot of upkeep. So, now you know why the ‘marina’ charges $5 a day just to dock your dinghy at a dirty and uncompleted dock. Of course, you get to use the new-but-shabby shower and frequently-flooded toilets. And now, I hear, they are thinking of charging for drinking water as well, one commodity of which Panamá surely has a surfeit, and which is in any case piped in free to the marina. Did I say rip-off?

I have to keep reminding myself that when we get away from the marina or tourist scene, the Panamanians, rich or poor, are really very nice. I think the years of colonial servitude when the Canal was U.S.-run probably corrupted at lot of the population. The Canal Administration and even the American-dominated national administration was likely less corrupt back then. The military police stayed on top of the situation to keep rebellion from flaring up. Any system of foreign masters however, especially where the masters (and their local toadies) are rich and the servants are poor, inevitably creates a corrupt, sycophantic environment. Since the hand-over in the 1990s, the country has been run by Panamanians themselves. As in most post-colonial states, that does not mean that everybody is involved. It’s generally always been a local elite replacing the old colonial masters. Probably worse for most of the people now. Here it has only meant a series of corrupt dictators and corrupt, quasi-democratic politicians. It’s the old Latin American syndrome. Panamá and Laton America has not as a rule been made up of the settler and small local business model. Much more common has been the conquistadores (and their present-day successors and emulators), on the one hand, and the enslaved indigenas or imported African slaves, serfs and/or peons, on the other. Slavery has been outlawed, although in some of Latin America only after World War II. The economic differences between classes (elites and peons; minimally small middle class) are still huge and the system, as always, benefits the rich. Any middle class that arose in Panamá in the past was based upon work with the U.S. Canal Administration. When the U.S.A. left, the middle class was wiped out.

Sorry about the rant!

Back to our situation. Did I say we want so badly to get out of here? So, I am repeating myself. Sorry, but I repeat myself. The alternatives to either staying here or sailing to The Marquesas are to return to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador (safe, temperate, familiar to us but the 600 miles to windward and it feels like backtracking), head west to Western Panamá (Chiriqui State) (been there; done that) or Costa Rica (not too far but very wet and rainy; a good angle for The Marquesas in say February, though).

Stay tuned. We have lots of food now so we could go anywhere. The Marquesas for the duration might still be the best bet. At least we would be cruisers!

I have to go back out to the boat now in order to hang upside down over the Lister diesel and adjust the packing gland nut. It infuriated and exhausted me for several hours the other day because I could not loosen the locking nut and the wenches I have would not do the trick. Now, thanks to Pedro the Carpenter on S/V Jade and Ron & Diane on S/V Batwing, I have some better tools. A filthy and physically demanding job even so. The packing gland is leaking steadily and I do not want to leave with the idea of having to pump every two hours as we cross the Pacific. Monday I shall go into to town and buy a pair of 2.5-inch adjustable wrenches.

Our digital camera seems to be baulking so I can hardly find pictures to add at present. I have come to the conclusion that S/V Vilisar is the graveyard of electronics. I may junk even the VHF radio and go back to semaphore, which happily I remember from my Wolf Cub days. Can’t remember anyone’s name any more, but I remember semaphore!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A big squall blew up yesterday afternoon and caused another Chinese Fire Drill in the anchorage. It seemed to be the bigger boats that had the most trouble here in this poor holding. One 55-footer sailboat, S/V Sea Fury, dragged up onto the causeway in the 30-40 knot winds. A bunch of other cruisers zipped over there after the first phase of the storm and pushed her off with their inflatables. Someone eventually got the engine going and the anchor up and drove Sea Fury way out to drop the anchor again. Roger and his wife looked a little puzzled as they went past us after returning long after the storm had blown through. Not one of the several work boats and pilot boats that ply the dock even took any notice let alone offer to help. Although she did not drag through the yacht anchorage, even a 200-foot steel dredging vessel, way out, dragged right up on the beach with her bow still pointed to windward because her anchor was down. She apparently has no functioning engine at present. A sister vessel came in at speed, through them a line in the torrential rains and towed them off tout de suite. Impressive seamanship!

We ourselves did not drag anchor. When I saw the squall coming, we shut all the ports, hatches and the skylight and I let out another 150 feet of nylon rode in addition to the 200 feet of anchor chain we already had out. Then, when the wind hit, we started the engine and drove forward very slowly to take any strain off the anchor. I think it would all have held without us, but, with the extra rode out, we were closer to lee shore and, although on a rising tide, the waves were beginning to build and we might have started touching bottom. After the storm passed through (45 minutes), we motored out into 25 feet of water and re-anchored. It’s now a longer row into the dock, but it’s safer. It’s best to be back on your boat by mid-afternoon as that is when the squalls normally go through, and you can at least take some counter-measures if you start dragging. I am considering setting up the second anchor so it can be deployed quickly and making it possible to buoy the anchor with a fender, cut the line, head out to sea if the anchor will not hold, and return later to pick up the anchor.

Today is very hot and relatively windless so far (noon). I hung into the bilge behind the engine and got the locking nut free on the stuffing gland, tightened things up to stop the dripping, greased the threads and the nuts well and set the locking nut again. Amazing what the right tools will do for you! Will buy a pair of big wrenches tomorrow in town. If the packing gland starts dripping again significantly after we run the engine, I shall know that the engine either is probably no longer properly aligned with the shaft or the stuffing material is shot.

We are getting ourselves into the mood for leaving for The Galapagos and The Marquesas again. Perhaps by the end of the week. It looks like 14 days to San Cristóbal Island in The Galapagos with most of it beating or close-reaching and average speeds of about 3 knots.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New CEPR Paper Assesses the Ecuadorian Economy Under CorreaFor Immediate Release: June 24, 2009
Contact: Dan Beeton, 202-239-1460

Washington, D.C. - The Center for Economic and Policy Research released a paper today that provides an overview of major macroeconomic and social indicators and policy changes in Ecuador over the two and a half years since President Rafael Correa took office in January 2007.

"Correa's continued popularity, even as the national and regional economy slows, is most likely attributable to the economic reforms and improvements in living standards that have been achieved over the last two years," said CEPR Co-Director and economist Mark Weisbrot .

Among the highlights of the paper, "Update on the Ecuadorian Economy " by Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval:

GDP growth averaged 4.5 percent annually for the first 2 years, contributing to significant reductions in unemployment, poverty, and extreme poverty during this time. Growth would have been much higher if not for the decline in the private oil sector, where output fell by 8.93 percent during these years.

The government doubled spending on health care, as compared to past levels, to 3.5 percent of GDP (about $1.8 billion). Free health care spending has been expanded especially for children and pregnant women.

There was also a very large increase in social spending by the government, from 5.4 percent of GDP in 2006 to an estimated 8.3 percent of GDP in 2008. This included a doubling of the cash transfer payment to the poorest households It also included a $$474.3 million increase in annual spending on housing, mainly for low-income families, as well as numerous new programs in areas such as education, training, and microfinance.

The government maintained an expansionary fiscal policy even as inflation rose from 2.7 percent when Correa took office to 10 percent in the fall of 2008, before falling back to 6.4 percent over the past three months. This appears to have been a good policy, as the spike in inflation last year proved to be a mostly temporary increase due to the rise in commodity prices.

The government defaulted on $3.2 billion of foreign public debt, and then completed a buyback of 91 percent of the defaulted bonds, at about 35 cents on the dollar. The default has apparently been very successful for the government's finances. In addition to clearing off a third of the country's foreign debt and much of its debt service, at a huge discount, the debt reduction appears to have convinced foreign investors that Ecuador's ability to repay its non-defaulted debt has increased.

In the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of this year, the economy was affected by the world recession, mostly in the form of lower oil prices and declining remittances. This led to a reduced current account surplus, and a growing trade deficit. In January 2009, the government implemented import restrictions, which appear to have to contributed to a reduction in its trade deficit.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panamá, Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ever since the water tanks under main cabin berths ran dry about Thursday or Friday last week, we have stopped pumping bilge water. The good news we deduce from this is that we are not taking water through a sprung plank underwater. From diving with a mask and snorkel, we can see that there is frayed wood on the wormshoe and there was a curious black line along one of the seams forward where the stem curves up from the keel. But, heading over today from Isla Taboga, my mind is still tense with what awaits us when we finally have Vilisar back up on the marine ways. This will be the third time since March! We are greeted by name by the hombres who help pull us out, for pity's sake!

Alex and Seida have moved their date on the grid forward and we decide to buddy-boat. Since they don’t have an engine in their big steel boat, we agreed to tow them if necessary. But this morning, we reckon we should be able to sail the seven miles to Balboa Yacht Club. Off we go about 0930 at about three knots and in pelting rain. Sailing is still fun after so long; the rain is relatively warm even when it drips down your neck. The sea water temperature is about 80ºC, the air is warm. "Humid" doesn’t quite catch the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the wind drops altogether about three miles short and we begin to arrange the tow lines on deck. Since there is so little breeze and a tide in our favour, Alex decides to use his outboard to push his boat along. We have lots of time in hand as high tide isn’t until 1347. We arrive far too early and both marine ways are still occupied. Alex pushes his sailboat right up close and drops an anchor. We patrol up and down off the yacht club until we see the previous occupant vacate the smaller of the two marine ways. Of course, when our time arrives, the breeze has picked up and a strong current is running. Nevertheless, we are hauled out by 1415 and the engine is shut down. There is Erwin Pitti with is various sons waiting for us as agreed.

While we are tidying up the deck, Erwin et alia are inspecting the hull. I am a little shocked when I finally get down to take a butchers. One of the planks, the one that showed only a black line underwater, is pushed out of alignment; the black line is the creosote, no doubt. I cannot imagine how one can deal with this. Erwin, on the other hand, is as usual quite sanguine. After all, in his fifties and at his job for probably forty years, Erwin has probably seen everything involved with wooden boats at least once.

He will be back in the morning at 0700 (he is always punctual). He assures me that he can fix the plank. He will bring a “gato”, the slang name in Spanish for a come-along or a jack, push the plank back into place. He will need access from the forecastle as he intends to drill holes vertically and then bolt the re-aligned plank permanently back into place. Then he will pull the water tanks and to inspect them and, if necessary patch them. We have a short list of other things he can do including checking over the rudder, which now rattles again after we had stopped that annoying trait with new gudgeon fasteners. Of course, there are a lot of cosmetic items to take care of: the bottom paint is scraped off and the wormshoe is damaged here and there. Erwin didn’t think this was too serious. Unfortunately, the chandleries are closed on Sundays so we shall have to wait until Monday to buy bottom paint. But we can sand and prep.

I realise how worried I must have been when I feel simultaneously both relieved and let down after Erwin and his clan leave. I feel we are in good hands now. Kathleen gathers up all our laundry and heads immediately for the laundrette about 100 feet from the boat. This is about the cheapest laundry facility anywhere around and all our bedding is beginning to feel salty-clammy. By dark, she has washed and dried everything and we are stowing them in the cabin while dinner, the leftover garlic broth with vegetables is being reheated and more noodles added. Delicious. Tastes even better tonight than yesterday! Maybe I am just hungry.

Alex is a treat to watch as he pushes his huge boat into the marine ways using just his dinghy and outboard. He is a real mariner. Of course, growing up on a boat and the experience that has given him helps. Maybe one day, when I grow up, I can do the same.

Preparing for Erwin's invasion of the forecastle will be left for very early tomorrow morning. Probably on the entry to the forecastle will have to be cleared away and perhaps the aft two vertical lockers there. Have no idea where all those cans are going to go.We can only hope; otherwise there is going to be a lot of canned goods and vegetables out in the sun and rain!

The Panamá Canal and worldwide recession

The traffic in the Panamá Canal is definitely very much off. I know that this is a totally subjective view, but in my opinion, there are fewer boats going through at present, the boats themselves are of a smaller size, and even many of those are empty or only partially filled. This is most obvious with container ships. I have only seen one or two big ones and then they are carrying many fewer containers (and how many empties?). Harbours like Singapore are no longer excepting anchored-off freighter, tankers, etc.; no more room. Every deep-sea harbour around the world is apparently the same. Here you can see thirty or forty ships around the entrance to the Canal and there are more anchored outside the 12 mile limit.

All this reflects the worldwide recession and especially the fall off in the China trade. There are hardly any consumers anymore in the U.S.A. They are worried about their jobs, overstretched financially anyway and under-capitalised as house values drop like a stone. Official unemployment has reached nearly 10% in the U.S.A., which as Krugman and others point out, means a real rate of closer to 15%. Ever since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan chose to accept until-then record levels of unemployment post-WWII as a means of wringing inflation out of the economy, there has been a concerted effort to cook the unemployment figures in order to avoid teh political consequences of such policies by, for exmple, not counting various categories of the jobless, e.g. not-yet-employed high school/university graduates; the discouraged jobless; etc. It was a calculate attempt to capture the home-owning, middle-class liberal vote. The New Centre. All OECD countries do this numbers hat trick now - even so-called “Labour” or “Democratic” or Socialist parties of the Blair, Clinton or Schroeder ilk. Hilarious to see Tony Blair, Gerhardt Schroeder or Zapata of Spain raising their clenched fists at meetings of the “International”.) Obama won by appealing not only to idealism but specifically for a strengthening of the middle class. He mentioned them repeatedly in his speeches. This means a high level of employment, state-paid free and good education, and safe streets. All of course with low taxes. But that’s another ongoing debate.
Isla Taboga, Panamá, 03 July 2009

Things have been quiet after the excitement of last week: the minor shipwreck; and the weekend storm. Kathleen has picked up some more proofreading work and I have completed small jobs on the boat prior to being hauled out tomorrow at Balboa Yacht Club. We have had a lot of rain but no more wind.

Alex comes over once in a while. Yesterday, he suggested that we replace the seizing wire at the outer tips of the spreaders with heavier wire. “It was done completely right, but the seizing wire is probably too light. If it chafes through and the upper shroud slips off the end of the spreader, your mast will lose a lot of support just when you will most need it.” Within the hour, we had the boson’s chair rigged and an extension cord rigged for the electric drill (it is no longer battery-operated; I now attach it straight to the battery terminals: it works fine). Super fit, Alex goes up the mast like a monkey and in twenty minutes he has drilled a new hole on either tip and re-seized the shrouds to the spreaders with heavy-duty, high-tensile galvanised wire. He checks over the fittings that we used to install the forestays a few weeks ago. Everything fine.

Word has gotten around about our episode on the rocks. Cruisers pick up gossip like cats pick up fleas. My first reaction is to feel embarrassed. But now my attitude is that it happened; it can happen to anyone (there are two kinds of cruisers: those who have run aground and those who have not yet run aground); we were lucky to have relatively little damage (the weather and surf conditions were benevolent); Vilisar is a damned stout boat; I (re-)learned a couple of lessons (never trust anybody’s buoy and/ or test it hard before you leave the boat); we are not taking any water and we know pretty much what the problems are to be addressed (the port water tank needs re-setting and perhaps re-sealing; the tiller has already been replaced, and we will haul out for an inspection and repairs tomorrow; and finally, if we get everything tickied up, we still intend to sail to Polynesia. The sooner the better. ¡Ahora o nunca! With a little bit of luck we should be out of here by the end of next week.