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, November 27, 2009

Isla Espiritu Santo anchorage, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Friday, 27
November 2009

With so few boats at anchor here when we arrived, it doesn't take long to
re-establish contact. Alex, the Russian, is soon visiting us to pick up
the goodies we brought with us for him and Angelique. They have been here
for months and love it. One of his projects is to continue his home-movie
series about their round-the-world voyage. Here in Espiritu Santo, Alex
has torn out the insides of his Swedish-built yacht, Little Qwin, and
complete re-built the cabin arrangements. He cannot wait to tell us about
discovering two villages or settlements right alongside the anchorage; one
is probably 150 years old and, the other, according to the Smithsonian
Institute in Panamá City, dates back 1500 years. When we visit Little
Qwin, they pull out the pre-historic ceramic shards from the older site
and the stoneware tableware (Chinese motifs in blue with "Smith & Co" and
"Warranted" stamped on the back) old glass bottles and the like from the
newer one. We get to watch the home movies with Alex giving us rough
translations from the Russian dialogue.

The couple say that the only things that they can't really get here that
they might like to have are alcohol and meat. Alex's eyes lit up like a
child's when I told him we had brought a large bottle of Abuelo rum. He
admitted that his attempts to make his own alcoholic drinks were a

They eat plenty of fish. A Greek-American acquaintance in Panamá City
laughed once and said that the fishing grounds are so fertile here in the
islands that "those damned fish out there will hit on cigarettes if you
thrown one in the water!" You can often see the waters churning as one
type of fish have a feeding frenzy on another. In the season, whales and
whale sharks forage through the anchorage. They have mostly gone south
again for the southern summer, but one huge whale shark had her baby right

Angelika (who comes from Archangel, north of the tip of Sweden; Alex is
Ukrainian from Yalta at the other end of the world) frequently goes on
food-fishing expeditions with Roger of Sea Fury. On our first full day
Roger asks around the anchorage if anyone needed fish and they return with
a nice little grouper and a sierra mackerel about a yard long. "This fish
is so fresh you can eat it raw right now as sushi", he says. We split the
mackerel with Angelika, I cut the long filet-mignon type filets from the
fish. Angelika briefs Kathleen on how to make fish soup.

Kathleen decides she is going to make this soup. Basically you are making
a fish bouillon using the heads and the bones of the fish. I like fish
soups and bouillabaisse and the like, but I was a little skeptical as it
was cooking. Didn't much like the smell and wondered about having two
heads staring back at me when I lifted the lid of the big pressure cooker.
But, the final taste was terrific, I have to admit. Here's the recipe:


Collect up all the skeletal bones and heads, put them into a large pot and
add water generously. Peel and add to the pot whole (i.e., unchopped) two
large potatoes, one large onion and a large carrot. Bring to a boil and
simmer for 20 minutes.

Pass through a strainer to remove bones, etc. Clean off the meat from the
bones, cut up the vegetables and add everything back to the broth. If you
like celery, this is the time to add it to the broth and not in the first
stage as they become too mushy. Spice with two bay leaves, half a teaspoon
of salt and pepper corns.

Bring to the boil again and it's ready to eat. Ground pepper to garnish
the bowl.

Delicious hot, warm or even cold.

Pickled Fish

We paid a visit to Wolfgang and Ute aboard Lumme, a steel yacht that
Wolfgang built back in north Germany. When I was dealing with some sort of
insect-sting infection the last time we were here, Ute, who is an
experienced animal healer, looked after me and provided antibiotics, etc.
We had brought some fresh produce and eggs from Panama City for them and
were eager to visit. They are fun to be with and we can converse in
German. I wanted to get Ute's opinion about a certain type of elastomeric
paint I was thinking about using on the decks and to get her recipe for
pickling fish. We got a sample again while we were aboard.


Take a large jar or other covered container and fill half to two-thirds
full with white vinegar and fresh water (slightly more vinegar than
water). Add several teaspoons of sugar (I used Splenda) and a similar
amount of salt. Add lots of thinly-sliced onion (perhaps two medium onions
for half a gallon of liquid). Spice with two bay leaves, pepper corns,
mustard seed, allspice corns, coriander seeds: i.e., whatever you have
that you like. Bring the whole to a boil to improve the spiciness.

You can use fresh fish or cooked. Cut the fish into manageable pieces;
small fish can be cleaned and pickled whole. Place the fish and the liquid
in a large glass or plastic container. Un-refrigerated it will keep for
several weeks at least and almost indefinitely if you store it somewhere
cold. Tastes wonderful as a snack or appetizer, and it's terrific cold
with boiled potatoes and other root veggies.

The wet season is meant to be coming to an end. Certainly, we are getting
a big mix of tropical rain showers followed by sunshine. Last night, after
a rain had us rowing like crazy to get back to Vilisar to close the
hatches, the sky cleared and I was on deck in the night to open the
hatches and rig the wind scoop again, the stars were so intensively bright
that I almost felt you could get a burn. The Big Dipper (Ursae Majoris)
was low and vertical in the north; it was a little hazy to the south so I
couldn't see the Southern Cross. Directly overhead were our old friends
Orion's Belt (Orionis) and not far away Sirius, the brightest light in the
night sky.

There are one or two fresh-water creeks on Isla del Rey, the bigger island
on one side of this anchorage. It's a good place to do laundry and, at the
little waterfall, you can have a nice shower. The water is drinkable, but
most of the boats here collect rainwater using their awnings and whatever
Rube Goldberg garden-hose connections that they have come up with. Since
we don't want to be schlepping water jugs back and forth from the streams,
we need to give some thought to how we too can catch rainwater. We carry
about 60 gallons of water in our tanks and another twenty gallons in jugs
on deck. When we are being particularly careful with water, we wash our
dishes and pots in clean sea water before rinsing them in fresh, we bathe
by swimming in the sea or use buckets of seawater and then rinse off with
a bit of fresh water, and if you are really skimping you can even use
clean sea water to cook certain items like noodles and potatoes. Today I
am going to try re-rigging our large sun awning under the boom to catch
this afternoon's rainfall into a bucket. I can empty the buckets either
straight into the water tanks or into the jugs. Then I can look forward to
a shower at the natural health spa on Isla del Rey.
Isla Espiritu Santo, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Thursday, 26 November 2009
Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.A.)

Island Paradise

Dare I say it? We have finally left Panamá City! In fact, we have a Zarpe
(departure certificate) from the Republic of Panamá. "Destination: Costa
Rica via Islas Las Perlas." We have left twice before and had to put back,
the last time for four months to repair our engine, transmission and
exhaust system. But, until we actually left the anchorage, I was almost
afraid to even mention the word "leave." I accept that life can sometimes
appear to be a cosmic joke, but I don't really want always to be setting
myself up.

The contrast between, on the one hand, this quiet little anchorage,
Espiritu Santo, nestled alongside the larger Isla del Rey, on the one
hand, and Panamá City's Las Brisas de Amador is enormous. The first thing
we notice after arriving here on Tuesday afternoon after an overnight stop
at Isla Contadora is the infinite silence. I don't mean just the contrast
to our noisy Lister engine; there was no wind for sailing and the engine
had pushed us along at 4-5 knots as we rode the outgoing tide for these
final 18 Nm. We are used to Lister and accept that he is noisy and hot.
But, the anchor down and the engine off, suddenly the cabin fan becomes
the noisiest things around. When we shut it off too, the ticking of the
engine as it cools off immediately becomes intrusive. When Lister finally
puts himself into standby mode, it's the ticking of the cabin clock that
draws our attention.

Another thing we notice immediately while we are quickly pulling on the
sail covers and rigging the sun awning and wind scoop is how clean the
water here is compared to Amador in Panamá City. No one in his right mind
would swim in what is a big sewage pool for the runoff from Panamá City.
I've actually done it because I had to clean the barnacles off the prop at
one time or another. But I always came back aboard wondering if I was
going to get some 'orrible disease. Here, we rig the swim ladder as well
and, when all the rigging of covers and awnings is complete, I jump
straight in to cool off. Wonderful!

The day-sail over to Isla Contadora from the City on Monday started off at
0700. There was a light northerly breeze and we were full of good hopes
that it would carry us all the way to the islands. We had the anchor up
and the sails hoisted within fifteen minutes and were able to say goodbye
to Tom Lewandowski as he motored into work.

We were soon doing 3.5 to 4 kts on a nice reach. It's over 33 Nm to
Contadora and we needed to keep up this speed if we were going to make it
by nightfall. We don't after all have radar, and as a matter of prudence
we never enter an unknown harbour at night. But, we know the anchorages at
Contadora and decide risk it.

Halfway to the islands, however, a large black front begins to move out
from the Darien coast. Will it engulf us? I keep an eye on it from the
cockpit while Kathleen is below working on a proofreading job. As it grows
darker ahead of us, I call down to her to take the tiller, and we begin
rapidly to shut down the hatches and portholes in preparation for heavy
rain. These squalls are usually initiated by a sudden fierce burst of wind
that can shred your sails. A deluge of rainwater inevitably follows. About
a mile ahead of us I can see the heavy rain on the waters and a grey,
impenetrable wall of falling water. You can actually see the well-defined
line of rain moving towards us across the waters. It's "All hands on deck"
to drop the headsails hurriedly, and prepare to heave to. The wind hits us
while I am still out on the bowsprit and securing the jibsail. I give up
on harbour furling and use the halyard to tie the sail down. After five or
ten minutes the wind is gone again, and the sea is being flattened by
truly huge raindrops. Drenched, I play with the mainsail and the tiller
until Vilisar is slowly bobbing up and down in now quite calm sea.
Confident that we are all right, I go dripping below to dry off. It's not
at all cold, but we decide to have a cup of tea anyway while we wait for
the squall to pass and a new wind to pick up. At one time all this might
have frightened us a bit. But, are getting to be old hands in this sort of
situation now.

Eventually the sky begins to brighten and the patter of rain on the deck
and coach house roof slackens somewhat. But it is clear that the weather
is more than just a localised squall, and there won't probably be any more
wind for a few hours. If we want to lie to our anchor by dark, we need to
throw on the engine and get going. This is always an unpleasant decision
since it means noise and heat. But, soon Lister is putting along at 3-4
kts over a flat sea.

We make it to Contadora's north anchorage just after dark - we use
flashlights to pass signals between the foredeck and the cockpit - and
anchor off the familiar white pier in 30 feet of water. We get a little
northerly blow in the night and I let out more rode. It gets a bit rolly
but the next morning arrives calm and nearly windless and we use the
engine the whole way here to Espiritu Santo.

Whereas sometimes the Espiritu Santo anchorage is quite full, there are at
present only three other boats now. They are more or less permanent
residents by now: Lumme; Sea Fury and Little Qwin. We know these cruisers
and have brought various goodies for them from various people in Panamá
City. But we like to have our privacy and anchor a good distance away from
them all. Before the village visiting begins we are content to just enjoy
the silence and tranquillity. Soon there will be other cruising boats
arriving from Ecuador and through the Canal from the Atlantic.

Paean to a Guardian Angel

We cannot leave Panamá City without a big tribute to Tom Lewandowski. I
have perhaps mentioned him before. When we put back to Panamá City with
engine trouble, we initially started work on the engine with two other
mechanics. They were all right, but they gave up on us for one reason or
the other. Tom took over the job after others had taken the engine apart
and left the major engine bits scattered around our main cabin. Tom had
never worked on a Lister diesel before. But he has terrific intuition
and mechanical instincts. After it had all been put back together and
found to work, it turned out that something had broken in the transmission
and everything had to be pulled out again. A small gear spindle had to be
fabricated by a machine shop in Panamá City. The instruments had also been
smashed whilst the engine was hanging and swinging from the mainsail boom
and had to be replaced. Finally, the old galvanised pipes that make up the
dry exhaust broke off at the bronze flange where the exhaust passes
through the hull. The last yard of pipe had to be replaced, requiring a
clever hand for the makeshift.

Tom stuck it out to the end where others might have thrown up their hands
in despair. Even when you understand what needs to be done to repair a
marine diesel engine, transmission, electricals and exhaust, don't believe
for a moment that repairs are going to be easy. Inevitably, everything has
to be done in a hot and cramped space, using one's left hand to fiddle
with a nut or bolt that is out of sight behind something else. Tom is
quite tall and crawling into the small engine room was no small feat in
itself. And, we are talking in our case about an antique engine (it must
be 36 years old at least now and no longer being manufactured), which only
increases the "challenge," as Tom liked to call the job.

So, here's a big thank you to Tom Lewandowski. He has soloed around the
world on his re-built yacht Luka and is organising an Around-the-World
Sailing Rally for the near future. You can check this out at We hope to run into him and his wife Beata
again soon. Maybe even here in the islands if he can ever stop helping
people and get sailing again.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Panama City, Panama, 13 November 2009

For those of us who have been following with interest Ecuador's development and that of other countries that are part of the so-called Pink Tide over the past few years, this is a thoughtful summing up of econmic results in Ecuador and Bolivia. The distain with which many in Europe and America greet the mildly left-wing, New Deal turn of politics in Latin America should certainly now be abandoned. Given that the First World is mired in economic stagnation as a result of failed neo-liberal, Reaganite/Thatcherite-type policies - i.e., the very same polices which were forced so disastrously on IMF loan recipients in Latin America- it is interesting to note that by any comparison South America is not doing so badly at all.

Ecuador, Bolivia Show that Even Small Developing Countries Can Pursue Independent Economic Policies, Stand Up for Their Rights, and Win

Mark Weisbrot, The Guardian Unlimited, October 28, 2009

Among the conventional wisdom that we hear everyday in the business press is that developing countries should bend over backwards to create a friendly climate for foreign corporations, follow orthodox (neoliberal) macroeconomic policy advice, and strive to achieve an investment-grade sovereign credit rating so as to attract more foreign capital.

Guess which country is expected to have the fastest economic growth in the Americas this year? Bolivia. The country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected in 2005 and took office in January 2006. Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, had been operating under IMF agreements for 20 consecutive years, and had a per capita income lower than it had been 27 years earlier. Evo sent the IMF packing just three months after he took office, and then moved to re-nationalize the hydrocarbons industry (mostly natural gas). Needless to say this did not sit well with the international corporate community. Nor did Bolivia’s decision in May 2007 to withdraw from the World Bank’s international arbitration panel (ICSID), which had a tendency to settle disputes in favor of international corporations and against governments.

Presidents Correa of Ecuador, Lula de Silva of Brazil, Kirchner of Argentina and Chavez of Venezuela

But Bolivia’s re-nationalization and increased royalties on hydrocarbons has given the government billions of dollars of additional revenue (Bolivia’s entire GDP is only about $16.6 billion, with a population of 10 million people). These revenues have been useful for a government that wants to promote development, and especially to maintain growth during the downturn. Public investment increased from 6.3 percent of GDP in 2005 to 10.5 percent for 2009. Bolivia’s growth through the current world downturn is even more remarkable in that it was hit hard by falling prices for its most important exports – natural gas and minerals, and also by a loss of important export preferences in the U.S. market. The Bush administration cut off Bolivia’s trade preferences that were granted under the ATPDEA (Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act), allegedly to punish Bolivia for insufficient co-operation in the “war on drugs.” In reality, it was more complicated: Bolivia expelled the U.S. Ambassador because of evidence that the U.S. government was supporting the opposition to the Morales government, and the ATPDA revocation followed soon thereafter. In any case, the Obama administration has so far not changed the Bush administration’s policies toward Bolivia; but Bolivia has proven that it can do quite well with or without Washington’s cooperation.

Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, is an economist who, well before he was elected in December 2006, had understood and written about the limitations of neoliberal economic dogma. He took office in 2007, and established an international tribunal to examine the legitimacy of the country’s debt. In November 2008 the commission found that part of the debt was not legally contracted, and in December Correa announced that the government would default on roughly $3.2 billion of its international debt. He was vilified in the business press, but the default was successful. Ecuador cleared a third of its foreign debt off its books by defaulting and then buying the debt back at about 35 cents on the dollar. The country’s international credit rating remains low, but no lower than it was before Correa’s election - and it was even raised a notch after buyback was completed.

President Correa of Ecuador

The Correa government also incurred foreign investors’ wrath by renegotiating its deals with foreign oil companies to capture a larger share of revenue as oil prices rose. And Correa has bucked pressure from Chevron and its powerful allies in Washington to drop his support of a lawsuit against the company for massive pollution of ground waters, with damages that could exceed $27 billion.

How has Ecuador done? Growth has averaged a healthy 4.5 percent over Correa’s first two years. And the government has made sure that it has trickled down: health care spending as a percent of GDP has doubled, and social spending in general has expanded considerably from 5.4 percent to 8.3 percent of GDP in two years. This includes a doubling of the cash transfer program to poor households, a $474 million increase in spending for housing, and other programs for low-income families.

Ecuador was hit hard by a 77 percent drop in the price of its oil exports from June 2008 to February 2009, as well as a decline in remittances from abroad. Nonetheless it has weathered the storm pretty well. Other unorthodox policies, in addition to the debt default, have helped Ecuador to stimulate its economy without running too low on reserves. Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. dollar, so that rules out using exchange rate policy and most monetary policy for counter-cyclical efforts in a recession – a significant handicap. Instead Ecuador was able to cut deals with China for a billion-dollar advance payment for oil and another one billion dollar loan. The government also has begun requiring Ecuadorian banks to repatriate some of their reserves held abroad, expected to bring back another $1.2 billion, and has started repatriating $2.5 billion in Central Bank reserves held abroad in order to finance another large stimulus package. Ecuador’s growth will probably come in at about 1 percent this year, which is pretty good relative to most of the hemisphere – e.g. Mexico, at the other end of the spectrum, is projected to have a 7.5 percent decline in GDP for 2009.

Presidents Correa of Ecuador and Morales of Bolivia

The standard reporting and even quasi-academic analysis of Bolivia and Ecuador are that they are victims of populist, socialist, “anti-American” governments – aligned with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba, of course – and on the road to ruin. To be sure, both countries have many challenges ahead, the most important of which will be to implement economic strategies that can diversify and develop their economies over the long run. But they have made a good start so far, by giving the conventional wisdom of the economic and foreign policy establishment – in Washington and Europe -- the respect that it has earned.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Isla Espiritu Santo, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Monday, 02 November 2009

Woke up during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday to find that the wind had shifted around to the SW and squalls were blowing into the cove where we had been anchored for a couple of days. I let out all the chain and a lot of nylon rode to quiet the boat down and give me some peace of mind. But we were now on a lee shore and the wind was just strong enough to start howling mildly in the rigging. I considered the trade-offs of moving around to the north side of the island once again to the increased likelihood for screw-ups in the dark and rain. I resolved for the moment to keep and eye on things and went back to my berth to doze.

At dawn we were up and at ‘em. The situation had not changed. But of course in the daylight everything looks less worrisome. A SW breeze would take us down the east side of the island group on a nice close reach. Soon we were under sail and making 3 or 4 knots.

We watched as a big black squall appeared to be readying itself to cross our bows. As it approached, the wind shifted and soon, instead of sailing SE or SSE, we had to veer more to NE to be close to the wind. We were dawdling around waiting for the squall to pass and for new SW breezes to pick up. Meanwhile we considered alternative ports and picked the landlocked cove on the E side of Isla Bayonetta. By this time the wind had died altogether and we switched on the engine. The entrance to the cove required tiptoeing around submerged rocks and sandbars, but by noon we were safely anchored in a millpond.

We wound up spending three nights here despite the No See ’ums that required us to dig out our mosquito coils and keep them going the whole time. Nevertheless, Kathy was covered in about a hundred red bites after the first night. Liberal applications of lime juice or white vinegar seemed to help the itching and Autan-brand repellent works pretty well too.

Overcoming our lethargy, we decided to move the one or two miles to La Mina. The cruising guide says the holding is only mediocre, which is probably accurate. You anchor quite a way out from the wide arc of beach opposite the airfield and cluster of buildings (about a kilometer away; never saw or heard a plane land there, however) in about 15-20 feet of water over rock and sand. There is a very strong tidal current but no swells and no wind can get at you unless were really to blow up hard form the N, which is unlikely at this time of year. We were happy to be away from the bugs.

After one night, we decided it was time to move on if we expected to see a few other places and still be back in Panamá City by the end of the week when we have to check out. We decided to sail to Espiritu Santo where so many cruisers hang out. We planned to stay only for a couple of nights and then make stops on the way back NW to Panamá City.

After getting started in a nice SW breeze that had us tooting along at nearly five knots, the usual squalls began to shape up. We never had to shorten sail, but the whole voyage was in rain, sometimes heavy. Kathleen sat at the tiller for the nearly four hours with warm rain streaming down her sou’wester. Grace Darling! As we approached the anchorage, we doused the sails and motored in, also in rain.

In fact it has been raining on and off since we arrived. This keeps the air very soft and cool; were the sun to come out now we would really notice its heat.

There are only about five or six boats here, including Batwing (Ron and Diane), Little Qwyn (Alex and Angelika from Russia), Lumme (Wolfgang and Ute from Germany), Sea Fury (Roger and his wife) and two other vessels, whose crews we do not yet know. We shall do a little visiting.

Soon after we had the anchor down, I was baking a loaf of bread. We threw in the rice left over from breakfast and the whole thing turned into a kilo loaf with a few raisins. Delicious! This recipe has now become my favourite because of its simplicity and its reliability. If you are interested, here it is:

Super-Fast White Bread

This moist loaf requires no kneading and rises only once.

3-3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 package (approx 1 tablespoon) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups milk
1 tablespoon butter or margarine

1. Combine 3 cups of flour, dry yeast, sugar and alt in a large bowl or food processor. Mix until blended evenly.
2. Heat milk and butter to 130oF in a small pan over medium heat (butter need not melt completely). (N.B. Since we used powdered whole milk and do not carry butter or margarine on board, I simply add the whole-milk powder to the dry ingredients and warm up only the water, which I pour into the dry ingredients and add a dash of oil. Seems to work. This is also the time to throw in whatever you find around the kitchen that needs to be used up: old rice, oatmeal, etc. and even other leftovers. It doesn’t seem to change the basic recipe and makes for interesting breads.)
3. Pour warm liquid(s) into flour mixture and beat until dough is stretchy (5 to 7 minutes). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and dust lightly with more flour. Knead until smooth and satiny (about 10 minutes), adding just enough additional flour to prevent sticking. (N.B. Because our galley space is so small and I dislike the cleanup later, I tend to do all the mixing and kneading in a big plastic bowl.)
4. Shape dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
5. Uncover and press dough to release air. Pat into a 7x10 inch rectangle. Beginning at a short side roll up dough, pinching edge against the loaf to seal. Place seam side down in a greased 4x8 inch loaf pan. (N.B. We bake our bread in a medium-sized heavy pressure cooker. So, I oil the sides and bottom or, better, spray them with cooking spray, and then press the dough down to cover the space well.) Cover lightly (e.g. with the pressure cooker lid) and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about 45 minutes). (Yesterday I placed the pressure cooker with dough on top of the engine block which was still warm from it usage on the way into the anchorage.)
6. Bake (uncovered) in a 400oF oven for about 25 minutes. Makes 1 loaf of about 10 servings. (If like us you are baking stove-top, it is better to use a flame diffuser over an open gas flame. But, in any case, be careful not to burn the bottom by baking too hot.)

Isla Contadora, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

We have been in the islands now for nearly a week. As the winds shift, we move from the north side of the island to the eastern or southern side to avoid being on a lee shore. Nothing serious; but sometimes there are enough wind and waves to get Vilisar rolling and the dinghy banging at night against the hull. Beyond Kathy’s online work, we have not been very active. It’s like a vacation after the months penned up in Panamá City with its big-city noise and traffic and heat and the dirty waters of the anchorage. Here we keep cool by jumping frequently off the boat into the crystal clear waters; we can see the anchor on the sandy bottom about twenty feet down. In some of the anchorages there are hundreds of tropical reef fish to observe. We read. We chat. We make the odd meal. Kathy proofreads. Because our Iridium phone was giving us trouble, we also went ashore on each of the first few days for a walk and to find the internet café that only opens between 1500 and 1700. But we finally figured out what was wrong with the satphone (the antenna wasn’t properly attached).

Even so, this morning we row in to the so-called nudist beach off which we are at present anchored. The only nudes, unfortunately, that I have ever seen there have been us; as I write this, for example, I can see several brown pelicans taking their leisure there, a pair of adult American oystercatchers with flat red beaks and silly, chatter-sounding calls to each other, three white egrets and a blue heron tiptoeing along the shoreline rocks between the sandy bits. But, no nudists.

Once ashore, we anchor the dinghy somewhat away from the beach using a big round rock in a nylon shopping bag, planning if necessary to swim out to the dinghy later rather than have to drag the dinghy up onto the sand. We walk a circular route into the village (clothed, I might add) around the southern end of the paved airstrip to the village square and café and then back again around the other end of the airfield and along the eastern beach where a large but now abandoned resort complex dominates a really pretty beach. I had left my expensive sombrero somewhere ‘in town’ two days ago, and I needed to find it. Well sweated in the over 90-degree F (32 degrees Celsius) sunshine, I recover the hat, and we are back on board by noon after a dip at the beach. Kathy swims out to Vilisar, her white bum a contrast to her brown arms and legs.

Isla Contadora is very ‘developed’, in the sense that there are a lot of shoreline houses. Over-developed would be a better term. And I don’t mean just modest cottages either. These are impressive edifices owned by wealthy Panameños, Colombianos, gringos, etc., who want to be sheltered from the crudities of everyday life and the prying eyes of the tax authorities at home. Even the Shah of Iran once lived in exile here for a while, though I don’t suppose income tax was his central problem at the time.

It’s all a type of island living, I guess. But, this kind of island living is not for the financially challenged. We saw one long, weed-ridden, narrow building lot with waterfront footage right next to the airstrip with a For Sale sign in English asking $1 million for the land alone. “Serious offers only!” it announced. I mean, like, seriously, people! Most of the huge estates and villas are immaculately kept but essentially unoccupied except perhaps for the housekeeping peon family at the gate house. These island inhabitants might have a few kids around. But there aren’t really that many children in evidence on the island. There is a small school, however, and children are even bussed over by open pangas from the neighbouring Isla Saboga, where the poor and servant class live. Their parents and now the children are making the socially and economically significant adjustment from subsistence fishing to cash-economy participants as chamber maids and yard boys. There were also about a dozen 10 or 12-year-olds playing an early-evening soccer game on Sunday. All the players were mestizos or indigenas. No creolos.

On the weekend, there were lots of seriously expensive cabin cruisers anchored or moored on the north side with us. The commuter airline that flies the 15-minute route from Albrook Airport in Panamá City was going fulltime on Sunday afternoon and evening to get people back to the city. One way costs $50, but no seats available that day. At about three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, as the buzz of propellers began to seem endless, there was a sudden buzz of boat activity in the anchorage as it seemed that all of the motorized fleet took off simultaneously for Panamá City. Probably it was just the boat crews rushing to get back before dark, while the owners, their families, or their playboy sons and their girlfriends flew home. Even the big white fifty-footers and even larger boats were going full out. That trip back to Panamá City for a large vessel probably eats up more fuel than Vilisar does in five years! By Sunday night, the island had returned to its weekday calm. There aren’t that many fulltime residents anyway. Nevertheless, the island has a desalination plant and big electricity generator. The neat, flower-lined coast roads serving the beachfront properties around the islands, at least, are well-paved. So you know that these people have influence. The back roads where the locals live are barely even graded. There are a few pickup trucks, but most ‘residents’ drive eco golf carts. There are even rubbish bins along the roads. Clearly this is not a Third-World island. It is certainly a crass contrast with the poor little fishing villages elsewhere in the archipelago, where people survive on fishing. You cannot help but like the atmosphere though, especially if, like us, you have become increasingly under-whelmed by Third World cities.

After talking to Ute and Wolfgang aboard S/V Lumme, we visited Günter and Susanne Hamacher, ex-pat Germans from Cologne. They have been on the island for 29 years and have a lovely house on a cliff and a view to Isla Pedro Gonzalez. Günter (call sign HP1XX) has five times been World Champion Ham Operator. Who knew? In my innocence, I frankly hadn’t been aware that there was even a competition for radio operators. It was Günter of course who told us, communications obviously being one of his skills. He told us quite a lot, indeed, while we listened and drank his cold Balboas on his terrace. He co-ordinates a SSB and Ham network from November till May or June each year for mainly German-speaking cruisers in the South Pacific (Pacific Tropical Island Net; 14,135 meters; 00.00 UTC). He “supports” or takes care of cruisers at sea and networks with and for them. He provides them with info or advice or assistance; he gives it to them himself or procures it from other cruisers. Weather forecasts, clearing-in procedures, etc., etc. He is 78 years old and has sometime recently suffered a stroke, which affects his speech somewhat, although he is entirely articulate. He hasn’t, apparently, cut down on his cigarillo consumption. Günter gave us the low-down on SSB and why we needed to forget about Iridium satphones and get a transmission-capable SSB. As it happens, we already have a good second-hand SSB radio that we purchased from Jack and Hermi (S/V Iwa) last year that can be used at the moment only for listening. We also inherited an antenna up the insulated backstay as well as proper grounding to the keel. So all we would need would be a good tuner. “Only about $750 in Panamá.” Only!

Dianne and Ron from Batwing passed through Contadora yesterday night on their way back to Panamá City to visit the dentist and re-provision. They have been down in the islands at Espiritu Santo anchorage on the east side of Isla del Rey where many cruisers like to hang out. It’s quiet and well-protected from any bad weather there. The little floating cruiser community fluctuates, but there always seems to be somebody there. It’s like a little village and after a while it also has all the good and bad things about so few people living so close together. Anyway, Batwing is junk-rigged. Diane and Ron now have the necessary materials assembled – mainly Sunbrella that they purchased as remnants here in Panamá City- to make their own sails. Making your own junk sails is much simpler than making sails like ours, where you need quite a lot of expertise. What Batwing doesn’t have is a sewing machine, which we on the other hand have stowed (inconveniently) in the forecastle. We bought ours back in 2001 in Vancouver with help from Bob and Rita Valine. It’s a US-made, heavy Piedmont that can be hand-cranked or plugged into 110 volts. It can also take a #21 needle so it can work its way through quite heavy materials like sailcloth or leather. The last time we used it was in La Paz, Mexico, however.

The Batwingers want to buy a machine, ours if it’s in good shape and we are willing to part with it. Although we would be willing to lend ours to them, I hesitate to sell it. Who knows when we shall need it, and we got it at such a good price that it would never be possible to replace it cheaply? Kathy does not seem interested in developing skills in the direction of sewing, and I have had so many other things to learn on the boat in the last eight years that learning to sew has not figured high on my list of retirement projects. I had been worried that the machine might well have sustained saltwater damage from our encounter with the rocas at Isla Taboga. But inspection this morning indicates that there is no rust at all inside and everything seems to function well.

Over a dinner of sauerkraut and chorizo sausages last night aboard Batwing, we also talked about “the cruising life.” This is a not-uncommon theme amongst us sailors, although since everyone (including ourselves) expects that we ought to be enjoying the life no matter what, one hesitates to express and criticism or doubts. Ron, for example, is fairly mechanical. But he is tired of being forced to work continuously on the boat to keep it in shape. He is also no longer as young as he was (he’s 64) and, although he is fit, he finds the physical work strenuous. Like us, they live on a tight budget, and the constant demands made on their funds by the boat is also a complaint. On the other hand, could they afford to live in the U.S.A. on Social Security alone? They have some investments but these have taken a shellacking of late. Back home in Washington State or Colorado they would have to start working again in their dotage.

These are all familiar complaints amongst cruisers who have been out for while. The first few years are exciting. But if you don’t make the mental transition to “life on a boat” rather than seeing everything as all-new, romantic, vacation-like, you might get bored with it all. Believe me! Too much of a good thing!

But, if you have paid for your boat and can do most of the work yourself or at least be able to afford to hire workmen in cheaper countries like Panamá or Ecuador, you can live on very little as a cruiser. Anyway, a house would require maintenance too, wouldn’t it, although it is hard to believe that a house would need as much work as a boat. And, if you rent, you just notify the landlord.

There are other issues, such as that certain activities are mutually exclusive: choral music and cruising, for example. Music is local and cruisers are vagabonds. Then there is the retirement shift syndrome. Anybody retiring is likely to find it difficult to adjust without a structured environment, without the perks of the job, etc. etc.

When it all gets to be too much, the only answer is either to plan a long passage or to get off the boat for a while. We have done both: passages to Alaska, California, Mexico, Galapagos, Ecuador, Panamá; caretaking on a ranch in Northern Mexico or house-sitting in Venezuela; travelling in Ecuador, visiting in Germany, Canada and the U.S.A.

With my sombrero successfully rescued, we are back on the boat by early noon. We prepare some lunchtime sandwiches using the last of the whole-wheaten bread I baked yesterday. Delicious and so much better than that Bimbo-brand sponge-bread! I shall bake another one this afternoon while Kathy is proofreading. The recipe I had from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook was all right, but I have an older recipe that I want to try again this time. Maybe I shall make plain white bread. Decisions! Decisions! And for dinner tonight? We need to use up the fresh foods (carrots, green peppers, cabbage, etc. Maybe it’ll be Chinese stir-fry.

Tropical life! Meanwhile, as I scan the horizon from the cockpit, I see a whale blowing about 300 yards away near the stony point.