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.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá, Saturday, 22 August 2009

Having abandoned the passage to The Marquesas once more, we have been back here in Panama City for a few weeks now while we figure out what to do about the engine. Henning, a German shipwright and mechanic, initially agreed to do the work, but only after his back has healed so he can handle the heavy lifting. Meanwhile however, he thinks Alexander, a pleasant Ukrainian-born Russian on a cruising boat here, could handle the step-by-step work of removing all the many attachments to the engine (batteries, starter, exhaust pipe and exhaust manifold, fuel pump, oil and fuel filters, etc.), lifting the huge engine off its mounts and turning the motor around within the engine room so access can be had to the rear where the seal has to be replaced. Henning is willing to be a resource and supervise in some capacity without actually taking on the responsibility of the job. I have worked with Alexander before when we did some rewiring; he’s a pleasant chap, a good worker and handy with engines, while Henning on the other hand has the formal training and experience. It should work and we work something out with Alexander.

It takes two whole days to get the engine finally lifted off its mounts. Basically we do it the same way we did it in Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador, i.e., by re-opening the two-inch hole drilled in the bridge above the engine room; then, once all the umbilicals have been removed from the engine, we brace Vilisar’s solid wooden boom with a block of wood and lift the engine with the aid of a come-along suspended from the boom by rope and with its hook let down into the engine room through the hole. Most of the preparation time is taken up with clearing the engine of all its attachments and loosening the eight bolts holding the engine to the heavy-duty mounts. The saltwater that entered the boat when we went on the rocks in Taboga has made most of the bolts very difficult to remove. Prior to starting to work, I used lots of engine oil overnight to try to loosen the bolts; it still took a whole can of penetrating oil and lots of cursing. In the end, after two days, the engine was dangling from a hook, the transmission is pointed into the cabin and we can settle the whole heavy lot onto two 5”x 2/5” wooden “girders” that we found ashore in the work yard. Alex goes to work dismantling.

Unfortunately, this proves very time-consuming as well. It could be that the overheated engine that we experienced on that eight-hour run out to Isla Pedro Gonzalez somehow semi-welded the various huge nuts and washers together. Eventually, however, we get the transmission removed (it lies rusty and greasy in the middle of our cabin to be stumbled over); the remaining engine oil that I was not able to get out prior to starting the work has mixed with transmission fluid and has flowed out black and stinking onto the cabin sole and into the bilge. The 2¼ -inch nut holding the heavy flywheel in place on the crankshaft takes nearly six hours to loosen. Alex goes round the anchorage looking for a huge pipe wrench that will do the job. More penetrating fluid and hammer tapping. Eventually it comes loose.

The flywheel itself proves to be even more recalcitrant. Just behind it is the engine seal that has to be replaced. So close and yet so far! No amount of hammering and heating with blow torches loosens the flywheel from the crankshaft. At $100 a day for labour, we are wondering if we should just have left well enough alone and simply poured oil into the engine as needed. Henning and Alex confer and Henning says we are on the right track. We use bolts with steel plates to try to lever the damned thing off. No dice!

While we are hard at work one day, a Port Captain representative comes around in a lancha to all the boats in the anchorage to check our cruising permits. Fortunately, we have just received one and are still smarting that a (different) official from the Capitania had ripped us off for a bribe in order for us to get the permit. I immediately assume that, with Christmas approaching, this guy wants some money too. But he seems content that our paperwork is in order and we are relieved that we got it in time. Eventually however, they take away an elderly Swiss cruiser named Jakob (S/V Rapace) with whom we had become friendly. He had apparently never actually even checked in let alone acquired a cruising permit. Later we run into him cooling his heels up at Migración and we are still there when they haul him off in an official truck. We hear later that he has been put into jail awaiting deportation. His girlfriend is a resident of Panamá and she has found a lawyer for him. What he needs, of course, is a ‘fixer’. Half of Panamá’s population – i.e., the half that are not real estate agents - claims to fall into this category, so it might all turn out all right. The question is whether he will be deported with his boat or by airplane, thus leaving his small yacht behind.

More importantly at the moment from our point of view is that Alex, the mechanic, and his wife have sailed away in the night. He came around last night to say that he thinks it is better if he disappears out to the islands for a while. He takes back his various tools and we pay him what money we have onboard that we owe him and this morning he is gone. The Lister engine, of course, is still hanging in the engine room and we are still living in the clutter and dirt and grease. When will this engine ever be repaired and, just as importantly, put back in place?

Loose boat

Did I report that we were damaged by a large steel ketch that dragged down on us in a recent squall? This 16-ton steel sailboat with beautiful lines is the property of an 82-year-old American living in Panamá. He has neglected it terribly however; everything about her is sad and bedraggled or simply broken. We are on shore when the storm comes up and I witness Henning on his S/V 2 Captains trying to fend off the maverick boat. As it slowly works its way down the side of Henning’s boat, lifting his storm anchor, doing paint damage dpown the side and trying to snatch his furling rig right off the bow, I realise that the next boat in line for attention is going to be Vilisar.

I jump into the dinghy and row out in heavy rain to clamber aboard. By this time the steel boat has already arrived alongside and caught itself on our starboard (upwind) side. She is pitching and crashing against us. I see her press heavily against the caprail, popping some boat nails. The heavy bronze fixture holding the wire-rope bowsprit whisker-shroud is compressed and broken, the bronze bolts sheared off; everything falls into the water, still fortunately attached at the tip of the bowsprit. With the large waves that have by now built up, the much bigger attacker is now pitching up and down and rubbing against our mast shrouds and caprail while I try to hold her off with just one small fender. As she rakes down our side, her high bow smashes into splinters the wooden lightboards about ten feet above the waterline. The wooden bits fall into the water leaving the copper navigation lantern squashed like a beer can but still somehow lashed to the boat.

I notice that the visitor’s anchor line has crossed my own anchor chain. If it keeps dragging it threatens to lift our Bruce anchor and we shall both be dragged onto the rocks about 500 yards behind us. I notice that the maverick’s anchor is attached using only rope; I tell Henning, who by now is on its foredeck, that I intend to cut that anchor rode and let the vessel pass clear. Since this boat has been dragging in nearly every squall in the past week, it is basically a hazard to navigation. If the owner can’t take care of it, I don’t see why I should sacrifice Vilisar in a probably-vain attempt to rescue us both. But Henning says they are going to try and put out a heavy anchor and pull the boat off Vilisar to windward. I am sceptical that that will be possible during the storm, but Henning himself has already thrown the anchor line over to me. I tie it off over our spare anchor roller and return to pushing off the visitor and letting her go astern. In the meantime, the wind has in fact dropped quite suddenly and the sea is beginning to smooth. The attacking boat is now clear of Vilisar and they are towing it over to the dock with a couple of motorised dinghies. Eventually they tie her up there and the Port Captain (where did he come from?) impounds her.

I inspect our damage and am thankful once again that Vilisar is so strong. Yes, the lightboard is destroyed but Ali, our German welder-friend, thinks he can repair the lantern, and I can cut us a new lightboard once I find some wood. Maybe I shall replace both of them while I’m at it. A few days later, I go into town to the Centro de Tornillo (Fastener Centre) to buy replacement bolts and two days later I have refastened the bowsprit shroud. It is pretty wet these days so I put off paintwork until things dry up a bit. Anyway, with engine work going on with lots of grease and oil around, it’s not a great time to be starting paint projects.

Kathy, on the other hand, is emotionally upset by what appears to be one more bad omen. Clearly there have been too many things threatening to cripple our long South Pacific passage. For two days we talk about our plans and finally decide just to put off any thought of going to The Marquesas at all for the time being. We can sail west and north towards beautiful Western Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and even Mexico when the winter NE Trades arrive in November or December initiating the dry season that will last until May next year. At any time we can decide to push off for The Marquesas. We now have lots of time and without the big passage bearing down on us, it takes the pressure off. Curiously, the farther north we go, the closer we actually get to The Marquesas anyway: how many people realise that San Diego is closer to Hiva Oa by a thousand sea miles than Panamá City? If we want to make the Coconut Milk Run (South Pacific) we can decide later and even leave in late winter. If we prefer to spend more time in Central America or Mexico however, no big deal. With that decided and our immigration and cruising papers for Panama now in proper order covering at least three months, we both feel terrifically relieved and we can now take a breather to get the engine repaired.

Through another cruising couple, Yoel (from Haifa, Israel) and Patricia (from Colombia) we learn of a choral society conducted by the leader of the National Symphony Orchestra. They invite us to join them to sing. Now we shall have some other interests that have nothing to do with the boat and we can meet some non-boat locals and possibly improve our Spanish some more. (Yoel is by the way a concert-grade pianist and even has a real baby grand on board. If you want to see him and us at work during a party on their sailboat called “Johannes Brahms”, visit The website actually belongs to interesting Polish sailors who were at the party.)

That’s the news from Lake Woebegone for the time being.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

This is a pretty interesting, first-hand contribution to the health-care debate. IF the USA is a real representative democracy and polls consistenlty report that a vast majoirty of the voters want it, why the USA citizenry does not yet have a proper and modern health-care system.

Mythbusting Canadian Health Care -- Part I
By Sara Robinson

2008 is shaping up to be the election year that we finally get to have the Great American Healthcare Debate again. Harry and Louise are back with a vengeance. Conservatives are rumbling around the talk show circuit bellowing about the socialist threat to the (literal) American body politic. And, as usual, Canada is once again getting dragged into the fracas, shoved around by both sides as either an exemplar or a warning -- and, along the way, getting coated with the obfuscating dust of so many willful misconceptions that the actual facts about How Canada Does It are completely lost in the melee.

I'm both a health-care-card-carrying Canadian resident and an uninsured American citizen who regularly sees doctors on both sides of the border. As such, I'm in a unique position to address the pros and cons of both systems first-hand. If we're going to have this conversation, it would be great if we could start out (for once) with actual facts, instead of ideological posturing, wishful thinking, hearsay, and random guessing about how things get done up here.

To that end, here's the first of a two-part series aimed at busting the common myths Americans routinely tell each other about Canadian health care. When the right-wing hysterics drag out these hoary old bogeymen, this time, we need to be armed and ready to blast them into straw. Because, mostly, straw is all they're made of.

1. Canada's health care system is "socialized medicine."
False. In socialized medical systems, the doctors work directly for the state. In Canada (and many other countries with universal care), doctors run their own private practices, just like they do in the US. The only difference is that every doctor deals with one insurer, instead of 150. And that insurer is the provincial government, which is accountable to the legislature and the voters if the quality of coverage is allowed to slide.

The proper term for this is "single-payer insurance." In talking to Americans about it, the better phrase is "Medicare for all."

2. Doctors are hurt financially by single-payer health care.
True and False. Doctors in Canada do make less than their US counterparts. But they also have lower overhead, and usually much better working conditions. A few reasons for this:

First, as noted, they don't have to charge higher fees to cover the salary of a full-time staffer to deal with over a hundred different insurers, all of whom are bent on denying care whenever possible. In fact, most Canadian doctors get by quite nicely with just one assistant, who cheerfully handles the phones, mail, scheduling, patient reception, stocking, filing, and billing all by herself in the course of a standard workday.

Second, they don't have to spend several hours every day on the phone cajoling insurance company bean counters into doing the right thing by their patients. My doctor in California worked a 70-hour week: 35 hours seeing patients, and another 35 hours on the phone arguing with insurance companies. My Canadian doctor, on the other hand, works a 35-hour week, period. She files her invoices online, and the vast majority are simply paid -- quietly, quickly, and without hassle. There is no runaround. There are no fights. Appointments aren't interrupted by vexing phone calls. Care is seldom denied (because everybody knows the rules). She gets her checks on time, sees her patients on schedule, takes Thursdays off, and gets home in time for dinner.

One unsurprising side effect of all this is that the doctors I see here are, to a person, more focused, more relaxed, more generous with their time, more up-to-date in their specialties, and overall much less distracted from the real work of doctoring. You don't realize how much stress the American doctor-insurer fights put on the day-to-day quality of care until you see doctors who don't operate under that stress, because they never have to fight those battles at all. Amazingly: they seem to enjoy their jobs.

Third: The average American medical student graduates $140,000 in hock. The average Canadian doctor's debt is roughly half that.

Finally, Canadian doctors pay lower malpractice insurance fees. When paying for health care constitutes a one of a family's major expenses, expectations tend to run very high. A doctor's mistake not only damages the body; it may very well throw a middle-class family permanently into the ranks of the working poor, and render the victim uninsurable for life. With so much at stake, it's no wonder people are quick to rush to court for redress.

Canadians are far less likely to sue in the first place, since they're not having to absorb devastating financial losses in addition to any physical losses when something goes awry. The cost of the damaging treatment will be covered. So will the cost of fixing it. And, no matter what happens, the victim will remain insured for life. When lawsuits do occur, the awards don't have to include coverage for future medical costs, which reduces the insurance company's liability.

3. Wait times in Canada are horrendous.
True and False again -- it depends on which province you live in, and what's wrong with you. Canada's health care system runs on federal guidelines that ensure uniform standards of care, but each territory and province administers its own program. Some provinces don't plan their facilities well enough; in those, you can have waits. Some do better. As a general rule, the farther north you live, the harder it is to get to care, simply because the doctors and hospitals are concentrated in the south. But that's just as true in any rural county in the U.S.

You can hear the bitching about it no matter where you live, though. The percentage of Canadians who'd consider giving up their beloved system consistently languishes in the single digits. A few years ago, a TV show asked Canadians to name the Greatest Canadian in history; and in a broad national consensus, they gave the honor to Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan premier who is considered the father of the country's health care system. (And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was also Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather.). In spite of that, though, grousing about health care is still unofficially Canada's third national sport after curling and hockey.

And for the country's newspapers, it's a prime watchdogging opportunity. Any little thing goes sideways at the local hospital, and it's on the front pages the next day. Those kinds of stories sell papers, because everyone is invested in that system and has a personal stake in how well it functions. The American system might benefit from this kind of constant scrutiny, because it's certainly one of the things that keeps the quality high. But it also makes people think it's far worse than it is.

Critics should be reminded that the American system is not exactly instant-on, either. When I lived in California, I had excellent insurance, and got my care through one of the best university-based systems in the nation. Yet I routinely had to wait anywhere from six to twelve weeks to get in to see a specialist. Non-emergency surgical waits could be anywhere from four weeks to four months. After two years in the BC system, I'm finding the experience to be pretty much comparable, and often better. The notable exception is MRIs, which were easy in California, but can take many months to get here. (It's the number one thing people go over the border for.) Other than that, urban Canadians get care about as fast as urban Americans do.

4. You have to wait forever to get a family doctor.
False for the vast majority of Canadians, but True for a few. Again, it all depends on where you live. I live in suburban Vancouver, and there are any number of first-rate GPs in my neighborhood who are taking new patients. If you don't have a working relationship with one, but need to see a doctor now, there are 24-hour urgent care clinics in most neighborhoods that will usually get you in and out on the minor stuff in under an hour.

It is, absolutely, harder to get to a doctor if you live out in a small town, or up in the territories. But that's just as true in the U.S. -- and in America, the government won't cover the airfare for rural folk to come down to the city for needed treatment, which all the provincial plans do.

5. You don't get to choose your own doctor.
Scurrilously False. Somebody, somewhere, is getting paid a lot of money to make this kind of stuff up. The cons love to scare the kids with stories about the government picking your doctor for you, and you don't get a choice. Be afraid! Be very afraid!

For the record: Canadians pick their own doctors, just like Americans do. And not only that: since it all pays the same, poor Canadians have exactly the same access to the country's top specialists that rich ones do.

6. Canada's care plan only covers the basics. You're still on your own for any extras, including prescription drugs. And you still have to pay for it.
True -- but not as big an issue as you might think. The province does charge a small monthly premium (ours is $108/month for a family of four) for the basic coverage. However, most people never even have to write that check: almost all employers pick up the tab for their employees' premiums as part of the standard benefits package; and the province covers it for people on public assistance or disability.

"The basics" covered by this plan include 100% of all doctor's fees, ambulance fares, tests, and everything that happens in a hospital -- in other words, the really big-ticket items that routinely drive American families into bankruptcy. In BC, it doesn't include "extras" like medical equipment, prescriptions, physical therapy or chiropractic care, dental, vision, and so on; and if you want a private or semi-private room with TV and phone, that costs extra (about what you'd pay for a room in a middling hotel). That other stuff does add up; but it's far easier to afford if you're not having to cover the big expenses, too. Furthermore: you can deduct any out-of-pocket health expenses you do have to pay off your income taxes. And, as every American knows by now, drugs aren't nearly as expensive here, either.

Filling the gap between the basics and the extras is the job of the country's remaining private health insurers. Since they're off the hook for the ruinously expensive big-ticket items that can put their own profits at risk, the insurance companies make a tidy business out of offering inexpensive policies that cover all those smaller, more predictable expenses. Top-quality add-on policies typically run in the ballpark of $75 per person in a family per month -- about $300 for a family of four -- if you're stuck buying an individual plan. Group plans are cheap enough that even small employers can afford to offer them as a routine benefit. An average working Canadian with employer-paid basic care and supplemental insurance gets free coverage equal to the best policies now only offered at a few of America's largest corporations. And that employer is probably only paying a couple hundred dollars a month to provide that benefit.

7. Canadian drugs are not the same.
More preposterious bogosity. They are exactly the same drugs, made by the same pharmaceutical companies, often in the same factories. The Canadian drug distribution system, however, has much tighter oversight; and pharmacies and pharmacists are more closely regulated. If there is a difference in Canadian drugs at all, they're actually likely to be safer.

Also: pharmacists here dispense what the doctors tell them to dispense, the first time, without moralizing. I know. It's amazing.

8. Publicly-funded programs will inevitably lead to rationed health care, particularly for the elderly.
False. And bogglingly so. The papers would have a field day if there was the barest hint that this might be true.

One of the things that constantly amazes me here is how well-cared-for the elderly and disabled you see on the streets here are. No, these people are not being thrown out on the curb. In fact, they live longer, healthier, and more productive lives because they're getting a constant level of care that ensures small things get treated before they become big problems.

The health care system also makes it easier on their caregiving adult children, who have more time to look in on Mom and take her on outings because they aren't working 60-hour weeks trying to hold onto a job that gives them insurance.

9. People won't be responsible for their own health if they're not being forced to pay for the consequences.
False. The philosophical basis of America's privatized health care system might best be characterized as medical Calvinism. It's fascinating to watch well-educated secularists who recoil at the Protestant obsession with personal virtue, prosperity as a cardinal sign of election by God, and total responsibility for one's own salvation turn into fire-eyed, moralizing True Believers when it comes to the subject of Taking Responsibility For One's Own Health.

They'll insist that health, like salvation, is entirely in our own hands. If you just have the character and self-discipline to stick to an abstemious regime of careful diet, clean living, and frequent sweat offerings to the Great Treadmill God, you'll never get sick. (Like all good theologies, there's even an unspoken promise of immortality: f you do it really really right, they imply, you might even live forever.) The virtuous Elect can be discerned by their svelte figures and low cholesterol numbers. From here, it's a short leap to the conviction that those who suffer from chronic conditions are victims of their own weaknesses, and simply getting what they deserve. Part of their punishment is being forced to pay for the expensive, heavily marketed pharmaceuticals needed to alleviate these avoidable illnesses. They can't complain. It was their own damned fault; and it's not our responsibility to pay for their sins. In fact, it's recently been suggested that they be shunned, lest they lead the virtuous into sin [1].

Of course, this is bad theology whether you're applying it to the state of one's soul or one's arteries. The fact is that bad genes, bad luck, and the ravages of age eventually take their toll on all of us -- even the most careful of us. The economics of the Canadian system reflect this very different philosophy: it's built on the belief that maintaining health is not an individual responsibility, but a collective one. Since none of us controls fate, the least we can do is be there for each other as our numbers come up.

This difference is expressed in a few different ways. First: Canadians tend to think of tending to one's health as one of your duties as a citizen. You do what's right because you don't want to take up space in the system, or put that burden on your fellow taxpayers. Second, "taking care of yourself" has a slightly expanded definition here, which includes a greater emphasis on public health. Canadians are serious about not coming to work if you're contagious, and seeing a doctor ASAP if you need to. Staying healthy includes not only diet and exercise; but also taking care to keep your germs to yourself, avoiding stress, and getting things treated while they're still small and cheap to fix.

Third, there's a somewhat larger awareness that stress leads to big-ticket illnesses -- and a somewhat lower cultural tolerance for employers who put people in high-stress situations. Nobody wants to pick up the tab for their greed. And finally, there's a generally greater acceptance on the part of both the elderly and their families that end-of-life heroics may be drawing resources away from people who might put them to better use. You can have them if you want them; but reasonable and compassionate people should be able to take the larger view.

The bottom line: When it comes to getting people to make healthy choices, appealing to their sense of the common good seems to work at least as well as Calvinist moralizing.

10. This all sounds great -- but the taxes to cover it are just unaffordable. And besides, isn't the system in bad financial shape?
False. On one hand, our annual Canadian tax bite runs about 10% higher than our U.S. taxes did. On the other, we're not paying out the equivalent of two new car payments every month to keep the family insured here. When you balance out the difference, we're actually money ahead. When you factor in the greatly increased social stability that follows when everybody's getting their necessary health care, the impact on our quality of life becomes even more signficant.

And True -- but only because this is a universal truth that we need to make our peace with. Yes, the provincial plans are always struggling. So is every single publicly-funded health care system in the world, including the VA and Medicare. There's always tension between what the users of the system want, and what the taxpayers are willing to pay. The balance of power ebbs and flows between them; but no matter where it lies at any given moment, at least one of the pair is always going to be at least somewhat unhappy.

But, as many of us know all too well, there's also constant tension between what patients want and what private insurers are willing to pay. At least when it's in government hands, we can demand some accountability. And my experience in Canada has convinced me that this accountability is what makes all the difference between the two systems.

It is true that Canada's system is not the same as the U.S. system. It's designed to deliver a somewhat different product, to a population that has somewhat different expectations. But the end result is that the vast majority of Canadians get the vast majority of what they need the vast majority of the time. It'll be a good day when when Americans can hold their heads high and proudly make that same declaration.

Next week: More mythbusting on common conservative canards about efficiency, innovation, and competitiveness.


In the universal health care debate, Canada is once again getting dragged into the fracas, shoved around by both sides as either an exemplar or a warning — and, along the way, getting coated with the obfuscating dust of so many willful misconceptions that the actual facts about How Canada Does It are completely obscured in the melee. As a health-care-card-carrying Canadian resident and an uninsured American citizen who regularly sees doctors on both sides of the border, I'm in a unique position to address the pros and cons of both systems first-hand.

Trackback URL for this post:
Health Care for All The Big Con Mythbusting



Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá, Sunday, 09 August 2009

We are still at anchor here near the Pacific entrance to the Panamá Canal. We know for sure that we have an oil leak under the engine Several experienced cruisers including a German-trained mechanic and a well-seasoned French fisherman advised simply to leave, taking lots of spare oil with us. If the voyage were not so long, we might consider this. Costa Rica or Ecuador, perhaps. But, The Marquesas? 4,000 Nm.

To fix the leak will definitely require pulling the engine. The German mechanic, Henning, said he could do it but not sure when that will be as he is, first, busy on a project in Colón, and second, has pulled a muscle in his back and can hardly move. If we are in no hurry to leave for the South Pacific, that’s fine I guess since we have to save up a bit of lolly to pay him anyway.

Meanwhile, we let other options run through our minds: returning to Frankfurt; Kathleen finding an interesting music job; caretaking again somewhere interesting (even back to Rancho el Nogal, Mexico, where we had such a good time); settling somewhere interesting like Venice or Florence and starting from scratch. We keep coming back in our minds to Europe, though; we may have had enough of Third World countries for the time being.

But who knows. We might still head for the South Pacific, either now or in 2009.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Las Brisas de Amador anchorage, Panamá City, Panamá, Sunday, 02 August 2009

Even after eight years, boats sometimes remain a puzzle. After eight hours of motoring out to Pedro Gonzalez Island in The Perlas and burning up 1.5 gallons of SEA 40 diesel engine oil, we decided to return to Panamá City to have an apparent oil leak repaired. We had decided to sail the whole 35 Nm back. But in the end we were becalmed so often and even when the winds seemed to be blowing, they were weak, fluky and basically ‘noserlies’. For example, after four nights at anchor enjoying the peace and quiet – and even the torrential two-hour downpour one evening -, we decided it was time to get the problem looked after. We had recovered from our disappointment and horror at the imminent repair bills and thought we might as well get the bad news as quickly as possible. Kathleen’s mind was actively seeking alternatives to sailing to The Marquesas.

With a light W breeze, we put out of Pedro Gonzalez. After a few hours of gentle sailing and more views of breaching whales, the wind died completely. After drifting for a while, I decided to risk running the engine at low rpm to see if we could make a safe anchorage at Isla Chapera. Lister took us along at a reasonable 4 kts on flat seas, through the gap into the beautiful anchorage off a sandy beach. Isla Chapera is the island where the TV series “Survivor” is filmed, so you can imagine how picturesque it is.

At dawn the wind was from the E. We were now on a lee shore and chop was building up. But an easterly was ideal for getting to Panamá City. Soon we were underway. After clearing the channel, we turned off the engine and put up sails. Nothing spectacular as far as speed is concerned, perhaps, but at least we were sailing. Dawn was at 0530. The sky was clear except way up north over the ridge of mountains that provide the spine of the Isthmus of Panamá and attract daily thunder and lightening. The islands, because they are farther away from these heights, are noticeably drier.

By noon the wind- wait for it - had died to nothing. We were slatting around in the sloppy Pacific swells. By 1500 the surface of the water was like a mirror. We finally gave up hoping and just drifted, dozed and read books. Around 1830, just before dark, a breeze sprang up from the N or NNE and the boat suddenly began to move. Slowly at first, and then we were doing 3 and 4 kts. All things come to them that wait. The sunset is spectacular behind the thunderheads over the isthmus. The three-quarter moon is in a clear sky for the moment and the stars wink on. Mars is red near the horizon. The Big Dipper is to the N, the polar star still under the hills. The Southern Star is bleached out by the moonlight.

For two hours we sail in ideal nighttime conditions. At one point another light seems to be approaching us from ahead and to starboard. At first I think that it is a plane circling around for Tecumen Airport. Then I think it is a low star. At night you cannot judge depth or distances. Suddenly it is even with us and the light goes out. I assume, the skipper was saving battery power. We often sail at night without navigation lights if we expect no shipping or boats.

I take the first watch. As I said, it was ideal at the beginning. Then it began to cloud over, the wind began to shift around. We were sailing very close to the wind anyway and any change could easily back the jibsail. The electronic tiller pilot’s pug-in socket seemed loose and the power would go off regularly. More so, as the swells and waves began to build up. Totally frustrating to set the course and go back to my book and then have to jump to prevent everything backing. After a few hours of this, I deliberately backed the jib, hove to in light and fluky northerly breezes and gave up for the night. I left the masthead nav light on and went to bed. Kathleen looked out every half an hour. But we were a long way from the shipping lanes into the Canal and there was very little worry. Occasionally, we heard outboard motors in the distance: fishermen heading out to their drift nets or drug-runners heading to Colombia.

Dawn was another perfect morning. When I woke up at 0530, there was already a lovely NE breeze and it took but a moment to let the jib slide through to the port side and we were suddenly doing 3.5 kts. again to NW, almost on our rhumb line to the anchorage still some 22 Nm away. All my (under-my-breath) swearing the night before and loud resolves to either sink or sell the boat and become a monk were forgotten. We would be in the anchorage in PC by noon and have the motor fixed tout de suite.

As the morning progressed, the breeze got progressively weaker and by 1230, the wind had died once again completely. Obviously, we were dealing with land and sea breezes: the land heats up during the day and sucks in cooler air from the sea; at night, the water is warmer (especially after cooling rain showers onshore) and the breezes reverse and blow from the land out to sea. I was ready to risk the engine.

We had added 1.5 gallons of SAE 40 at Pedro Gonzalez, which brought the levels up to the mark. We had run the engine for 1.5 or 2 hours to get into and out of Isla Chapera. We would run the engine at medium speed and keep and eye on the temperature and oil pressure. Halfway to PC, I would stop the engine and check the actual oil level. We dropped the flapping headsails, sheeted the main in amidships as a steadying sail and off we went at about 3.5 kts.

The trip was totally uneventful. Lister purred away; she gets pretty warm anyway, but she never overheated. Ten miles out, I stopped and checked the oil level: no loss whatsoever. On we went, arriving and putting the anchor down in nearly exactly in the spot we left five days earlier. The awning was up and we were counting our blessings and trying to decide what to do.

Soon Roger and Jonathan, the father and son Bretons on two boats who we had met before, were calling on VHF to ask why we were back. Roger, a real old salt, says he had Lister engines for years on his 50-metre tuna boat. They are reliable and he knows how to fix them. He came over this morning to talk some more. He thinks we should just accept that we have a leaky engine for the moment, take along extra gallons of diesel-engine oil (but heavier stuff: SAE 50, for example); there are Listers all over The Marquesas, he says, that are used for power generation in the out-islands. So no problem getting Lister parts. The engine in his sailboat leaks like a sieve, he tells us. He just sails as much as possible and adds oil whenever needed. Anything that gets into the bilge he just pumps overboard periodically. (Hmm…!) That basically is the advice from Baltimore too; the advice from Atlanta is that the gods appear to be against us.

I don’t believe in the gods, frankly, and I still have confidence in the boat (despite my frustration with the winds and the tiller pilot overnight). We have had a lot of things fixed up and the incidence n the rocks of Taboga can be passed over as a one-off event (we hope). The tiller pilot can probably be fixed easily: it’s just a loose plug, after all. SAE 50 diesel-engine oil is plentiful here and we can buy it for $11.50 or $13.00 a US gallon. It’s much more expensive in French Polynesia. We would need lots of oil in case we have to work on the engine in The Marquesas or The Galapagos and drain the old oil to do so.

We would need at least a day to buy more perishables and a jug of diesel fuel to make up for what we used in the past week.

I think we should go. If nothing else, we can just stay in The Perlas. It’s much nicer than here.