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, 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.


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