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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Will Progressive hearts be broken if Barack Obama becomes president of the U.S.A.

(Note: Given the events of recent weeks, I decided to re-post the blog I wrote last August while the presidential election campaign was still in full swing. The economy had not yet totally tanked. But, as the campaign progressed, the disastrous results of the financial crisis became more and more obvious, while John McCain assisted by shooting himself repeatedly in the foot. Obama came to office on a gigantic wave of optimistic support, with record voter turnouts by the young and the progressives, who at last saw an opportunity for real democratic change, an opportunity for America to redress its disastrous reputation abroad, for real healthcare for all at home.

Instead, America and the world have been hoodwinked by a consumate politician, whose policies have been a huge disappointment. Some nice speeches but no real follow-up. Announcing the closing of Quantanamo but continued detention of the prisoners there; the ending of waterboarding while other forms of torture continued; the policy of "rendition" kept in force. The list goes on. There is no "Change you can believe in" here, after all.

Will Obama learn the lesson of the lost election in Massachusetts? He has sold his soul to Wall Street and the corporations. He continues to be the Imperial President. He surrounds himself with 'Yesterday's Men'. Almost nothing has changed since George W. Bush left office. Iraq is still a battlefield while Afghanistan is hotting up. Both are lost and immoral causes. Even the healthcare plans are a boondoggle, a financial lifeline for the pharmaceutical and other companies. The real lesson of Massachusetts is that Obama has betrayed his supporters and is now beginning to pay the price. Bill Clinton did much the same after the first mid-term elections. But Obama carried far more hopes then Bill Clinton ever did, and his fall will be all the greater.)

The race between Barack Obama and John McCain for U.S. president is still wide open and it still looks set to be a close-run thing. Fortunately in some ways for Obama, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have gone out of the headlines. And, curiously enough, the Bush administration and the McCain campaign might like to have it come back to the centre of attention.

If the military build-up referred to as “The Surge” has not been the cause of reduced violence in Iraq, it has at least preceded it in time, and the radically-idealistic militarists in power in Washington are quite happy to claim that they have been right all along. With the possible exception of the left-wing blogosphere, discussion in the United States about its miscellaneous current wars almost never illuminates the illegality or immorality of attacking small and relatively weak countries; debate centres far more on how well the current overseas civilian resistance to American hegemony is being quashed. In other words, people here only seem to talk about whether military actions are currently “successful” or efficacious. The American public grows quickly bored and equates slow progress with failure. Anyway, despite now nearly two hundred years of evidence to the contrary, most Americans view themselves by and large as nice folk – and they are -who do not do such things – but they do.

My point is, “The War(s)” have gone off the TV screens. Bush, Cheney and McCain are claiming that The Surge has worked and troops can be scheduled to be withdrawn. Even the Iraqi government seems eager for U.S. troops to clear out. I predicted earlier that Republicans would easily be able to undermine Obama’s critique of the War in Iraq by first achieving some measure of calm over there and then start making at least token troop reductions. This is exactly what is now happening. As Bush et alia stole his thunder, Obama then responded by promising to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2010, implying that Bush would retain U.S. soldiers in Iraq after suppressing the local resistance. Bush then checkmated Obama by agreeing with the Iraqi prime minister on a timeline for withdrawal. Now either 2010 or early 2011 seems to be agreed.

Left with not much by way of “Change you can believe in” as far as Iraq is concerned, Obama then switched wars. He said that as president he intended to increase the military overall and to boost the numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “[Afghanistan] is the war we have to win”, stated Mr. Obama to show his international leadership qualities. Once an administration commits to overseas action, nobody ever gets elected in the States urging peace until even the dumbest voter might begin to suspect that one should stop digging the hole deeper. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush’s administration is also now saying the U.S.A. needs to focus more on Afghanistan where military casualties are currently exceeding those in Iraq. General Petraeus (McCain’s top choice for his personal hero!) is being put in charge.

Before assuming the role of the strong international (i.e., war-time) leader, Mr. Obama was fond of stating - quite correctly, in my opinion - that one had to start talking to one’s competitors and enemies (like Nixon in China or Reagan with the Soviet Union). Ironically and however ham-fistedly, that is just what Condoleeza Rice is now doing with Iran and Syria. We shall see if the Georgia conflict will bring out their worst, but certainly the Bush administration has moved increasingly away from its highly confrontational and militarily aggressive stances on international problems just at a time when Mr. Obama might have been able to gain votes for a pragmatic foreign policy. The administration, in other words, is stealing Obama’s election arguments. The poll results are still close so it is tough to tell if McCain is benefiting from this. If the Republican contender were any less klutzig and shifty he might well be in the lead.

Change you can believe in

A bigger issue is now just how much “change you can believe in” is Mr. Obama actually offering nowadays. As mentioned, the Republicans have moved to take over some of his more pragmatic planks. With the Democratic primaries behind him Mr. Obama can now safely ignore the progressive wing of the party; where else can those voters go except into hiding on election day? He has shifted to the political middle, although the rhetoric sounds right-wing and makes him sound like a hack politician without any idea of the new quagmire he is driving the cart into.

Big talk about beefing up the military effort in Afghanistan, expanding the campaign to Pakistan if those guys don‘t shape up over there – where’s the change? Indeed it’s the same old line about “American prestige”, the War-on-Terror and the “the-line-in-the-sand” metaphors. A change you could believe in would be to cut back the U.S. armed forces to less than half. Change you could believe would mean giving up “equip-and-train” missions in some 47 (sic) overseas countries (as in Latin America of old, these missions are designed less to train local armies to defend themselves against aggressors than to police their own citizens). Change you could believe in would mean abandoning the hundreds of FOB (Forward Operations Bases) around the world. Change you could believe in would be to abandon the ridiculously expensive, provocative and doubtfully effective anti-ballistic missile system just being introduced into Poland, the Czech Republic and the international ballistic-missile equation. Change you could believe in would be to stop trying to encircle Iran and Russia and to grab the world’s oil fields while using small countries like Georgia as pawns. Change you could believe in would be to put the newly mobilised U.S. Navy’s 4th Battle Fleet (to patrol the Caribbean, believe it or not!) back into the mothballs where it has been since World War II, and to stop threatening New-Deal countries in Latin America. Change you could believe in would be to stop pouring billions every year into Columbia as America’s neo-conservative stalking horse in South America. Change you could believe in would be to stop playing king-maker in the Balkans. Change you could believe in would be to stop the incredibly huge range of “dark” or covert operations run now by the Defense (sic) Department instead of the politically more accountable CIA. Change you could believe in would be to stop unconditionally backing Israel while it ethnically cleanses Palestine. Change you could believe in would end the embargo against Cuba.

Georgia on my mind

Just at this juncture violence flares up in Georgia resurrecting ingrained old fears of Russian hegemony. Within days the Russians have become this month’s Bad Guy of the Year. American voters are quite unaware of the game that the U.S.A. itself has been playing in Eastern Europe and the Stans since the fall of the Soviet Union. The strategic encirclement policies that once led to the formation of NATO in the 1950’s are now being applied to Iran. NATO has as a consequence moved a long way east and southeast and the Russians have been protesting loudly about it for years. As long as Russia was economically weak, however, and political control in Russia unconsolidated, Moscow was unable to do much. But the price of oil is up and Russia is economically much more confident, and Putin et alia’s hold on government is now much more secure. Moscow can therefore be much more assertive. This at a time when they are feeling very threatened.

Throughout modern history Russian has identified itself with Slavs outside the country. So now, for example, in Kosovo and Serbia. And so too in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which unlike the Balkans, lie right on Russia’s own doorstep. More importantly, however, Putin and his fellows in Moscow are determined to show the limits of American power along the borders of Russia. Bush’s bluff is being called. Reagan promised Gorbachev that ‘The West’ would not move into the buffer zone of hived-off, post-soviet Eastern-European satellites like Poland, The Ukraine or the Baltic states. This promise has been broken. So Russia’s moves in Georgia are also to be understood as a warning to other neighbours not to get any cockier than they have been till now.

Russian military activities in Georgia are a reason for the militarily-stronger European members of NATO now to think seriously about just what it means to have Georgia as a fellow NATO partner. Germany and France have already said that they are not in favour, presumably because they are, quite reasonably, not mentally prepared or physically able to come to the aid of a small state like Georgia if it is attacked. This is realpolitik. NATO could no more realistically come to Georgia’s assistance than Great Britain was able to defend Poland against the Nazis in 1939 or the Soviet Union against the U.S.A. Except for nuclear or conventional missiles and aircraft, Georgia is far beyond NATO’s military reach and is destined to remain so. Georgia is moreover an unstable state full of ethnic conflicts (like that in South Ossetia). The president of Georgia, Mr. Sakashvili, has provoked the conflict in part not only by accepting U.S. military equipment and training and agitating to join NATO; he has taken the military build-up meant for defence and re-invaded ethnic-Russian South Ossetia, then agreeing to a ceasefire when the Russians became involved and finally breaking the ceasefire himself. No sane government in Germany, France or Britain should care to see their horse hitched to that particular runaway cart. Opposition politicians might deliver themselves of macho speeches but the reality is different. NATO, once only a defensive alliance, might have morphed in the last generation into an offensive league (Q.E.D. The Balkans, Afghanistan, etc.), but, so far, major European members are disinclined to let Mr. Shaakashvili drag them into a war. Dick Cheney might think that Georgia is a sufficient cause for war, even a nuclear war; but he may find that that is too much change even for him to believe in.

Mr. Obama too is wagging his finger at the Russians in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia, puffing up his chest, talking the talk and walking the walk. There is however a bigger issue. Since winning the Democratic primaries and becoming the putative Democratic presidential candidate, Obama has headed for the “extreme middle” - about where President Clinton used to find himself when it came to sending in the cruise missiles to solve a problem. The progressive wing of the party is dismayed. But, since Obama is the sole functioning homo sapiens in the race, progressives have nowhere else to go. Unless they stay at home, of course - a possibility. Progressives will have to hold their noses and vote for him. One wonders about the numerous young and first-time voters; in search of a hero and desirous of change, will they be disenchanted enough at stay home. Whatever, the fight is now for the middle, the “independents”, the fence-sitters and the undecideds. And the moderately conservative right.

Known-knowns and unknown-unknowns

Dedicated Obama supporters will sometimes tell you that he has to say these things to get elected. After he is in the White House he will act differently. But, doesn’t that mean that you are voting for a known liar (as opposed to the unknown liar, George W. Bush in 2000)? And in this scenario, Obama comes to the White House having cynically campaigned either to get the votes of the progressives during the Democratic primaries or the votes of the middle and right in the presidential election. Sure he would have got himself elected. But as president, he would not be obliged to Progressives since he will have promised them nothing during the presidential campaign. If anything he will have to honour promises that he is making to the right about just how militaristic American foreign policy is to remain. Is that change you can believe in?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, Thursday, January 14, 2010

Just because this little town is quiet doesn’t mean that nothing at all ever happens.

Visitors from Canada

Yesterday, for example, I received a visit from a young Canadian couple who were holidaying in Costa Rica as a break from rigours of an Ottawa winter. They have been surfing and sightseeing along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and had arrived by the early-morning, fast passenger ferry from Puerto Jimenez. It wasn’t completely by chance that Thomas and Tanara had stopped by Golfito specifically to see me. Thomas’ dad and I were in the same regiment back in the late 1960s; we met on the RCAF plane going to Duesseldorf, in other words before Thomas was even a gleam in his daddy’s eye. We two old-timers werew also post-graduate students together in London around 1970. The last time I saw Thomas albeit briefly was in Strasbourg, France, some dozen years ago and before that he had visited my flat in Frankfurt back with his parents when he was about twelve. We had time today to reminisce and get to know each other somewhat better now that he is an adult. Pure pleasure for me. His partner, Tanara, is also a most lively and interesting person. Too bad they couldn’t have stayed longer.

Another face from the past: Port Hadlock/Port Townsend

And you can file this one under The Good Old Days, too. After the young couple left on an early-afternoon bus headed towards San Jose, I walked back along the waterfront (there is only one street between here and the bus terminal!), did some shopping on he way and was later drinking a cold beer with some other cruisers back at Land & Sea. As John, another cruiser, and I began to compare notes, we realised that we actually knew each other from Port Hadlock’s Old Alcohol Plant Marina near Port Townsend, Washington. That is where we had originally found and bought Vilisar from Roger van Stelle back in 2001. Vilisar came with a permanent slip in Port Hadlock, which, however, we soon gave up after a month or so since we intended to become real cruisers and sail around the world. Sailing experience (as opposed to boat maintenance) is strictly limited if you are in a marina, I reckon. John lived and lives on a Pacific Seacraft 27 called Veracity and he was docked only a few slips away in Port Hadlock. He is the one who put now together all the clues, remembering that I had been a translator back then, and was determined to get some sort of under-way communications so I could continue to work while cruising. He ran into us again, he said, the next spring in Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. I can just barely remember all this, since no doubt we were being more than somewhat overwhelmed with new things s and new people at the time. We were on our way to Alaska and John was circumnavigating Vancouver Island or going to Alaska too. “You look much more salty now,” he said with a slight chuckle. I guess we were pretty green at the time.

Yacht transporters

S/V Terre Firma was delivered here by (Jan and George of S/V Claire de Lune) from Ecuador a few weeks ago and has been patiently awaiting a cargo ship’s arrival. I promised to help Tim of Land & Sea get the yacht onto the yacht cargo-ship. For the un-initiated, instead of making a long passage yourself or having a paid skipper and crew deliver your boat for you, you can actually have it shipped aboard a commercial vessel specially designed for this task. Most motor vessels don’t carry enough fuel for very long sea passages and are not really designed for offshore work. I think the Dutch started this trade. There is no need to unstep masts, etc., so all-in-all loading and unloading quite simple and the boat has less wear and tear than sailing her back and forth. Crewmen or owners can also be carried on aboard so arriving with their yachts. The ships travel at 15-18 knots, i.e., a lot faster than the yacht could travel by itself. (

The M/V Mary Green arrived a few days ago and picked up or delivered a number of boats. They were mostly power boats, but of all shapes and sizes. At a guess, less than about one-third were sailboats. On some ships, boats can be driven straight into a flooded hold (e.g. hoisted by slings and cranes. These specialised cargo ships sail regular round-the-world routes picking up and dropping off boats at important yachting sites as they go along.

This morning a second ship took the place of the first. It was the Singapore-registered ship Pac Deneb ( or ). If I read this correctly, Pac Dineb can also be used for other cargo, like trucks, or steel pipe, etc. If anything it had even more motor cruisers on board than Mary Green. We are notified to be ready with the yacht alongside Pac Deneb at 1330.

It was all rather simple. The officers and petty officers were Chinese form Singapore (I assume). The loading hands were all Latinos from Mexico or San Diego. The loading hands only fly out to each port to load and then home again when the loading is completed. There’s no point in just sitting for the offshore portion; it is cheaper for the shipper to pay off the hands between ports. The next stop on Pac Deneb’s itinerary is Manzanillo, Mexico, but they might continue on to San Francisco and/or Vancouver. According to Tim, foreign-flagged vessels may only touch at one port in the U.S.A. That’s the way the airlines were until just a year or so ago. Some of the vessels are heading north because yacht owners have to go back to work, or they simply don’t want to make the long passage to windward up the Mexican and California coast.

One sports-fishing guide from Port Aransas, Texas, told me he keeps one boat in Texas and one in Costa Rica and uses them for half the year in each place. But he is considering saving money by owing only one boat and having it shipped back and forth as required.

It depends of course how expensive his marinas are. If he still has to maintain two marina slips, for example, even though he only has one boat, it might not calculate. $10,000 in shipping charges works out to about $833 a month for marinas. If he has to pay for two marina slips at $500 monthly each (total $1,000 monthly x 12 + $12,000 p.a.) the calculation doesn’t look so good. But assume he only has to pay for one slip all year: $6,000 p.a. So, two boats cost $12,000 (his pays flight tickets in both cases, we assume). One boat that he ships back and forth costs $6,000 (marina) + $5,000 (shipping) = $11,000. He is already making money. And we have not figured in the direct costs of owning two boats, i.e., the insurance, maintenance, interest expense and depreciation. And one boat is surely a lot less work and worry than two. So I guess it makes sense for him.

Fire in the lounge

I am normally up and about before dawn. It comes at around 0500 CST. This morning I was still dozing when I heard a loud fire siren that pulled me fully awake. Looking out of the companionway hatch I saw grey smoke pouring out of the upper level of Land & Sea’s building, i.e., from the direction of the cruiser lounge. There were no flames that I could see, but since there was no wind whatsoever the still billowing pall of smoke was spreading listlessly all along the line of houses and out over the anchorage. A half-hour later, the smoke had cleared. When Tim comes to get me for the yacht loading, I ask him. “so, how was your morning?” He rolled his eyes. There was an electrical fire in a fan that had been going all night in the guest room at the back of the lounge. They got it out quickly, but the firemen arrived and blew ashes all through the upstairs facilities. Now all that has to be cleaned up.

Ship care and maintenance

Each day I sand and prepare another portion of brightwork and then give it a coat of Cetol Marine. For those not in the boating world, I guess you could call Cetol a synthetic varnish; we use Cetol Marine, which is said to have a higher UV-protection factor. You can also add a final ‘gloss’ coat which is even better against UV rays. We don’t have any gloss aboard at present, however.

Real varnish in my opinion looks great, better than Cetol, which in the traditional formula tends to turn orange and darken over time (Kathleen actually likes the look of Cetol compared to varnish). But varnish is much more work to keep up, especially here in the tropics. There is more than enough cosmetic work to do aboard Vilisar without getting into natural varnishing as well! Many surfaces that real yachties might want to keep as brightwork are on Vilisar painted surfaces, our caprails, for example.

Since keeping up varnished surfaces is frequently the job of the mate, is this why Kathleen says she prefers Cetol? With varnish you have to sand carefully each coat, remove the dust, keep touching up if there is any local damage. Inother words, endless work! But, after you get the three base starter coats of Cetol on the bare wood (no sanding between coats; 24 hours waiting time between coats), you should thereafter only need to do one coat a year. As annual preparation, simply go over a clean and grease-free surface lightly with 120-grit sandpaper (some even use just a Scotchbrite scouring pad) and slap on the Cetol Marine. No sanding between coats if you put on more than one. A gallon of Cetol Marine seems to be stretching a long way. I use a really good-quality two-inch brush, and clean it well with mineral spirits (Aguaras, in Spanish); we keep this on board also as fuel for our petroleum lamps (it’s much cheaper than lamp oil and much less stinky than most kerosene).

Sections that have been exposed to a couple of years of tropical sun and rain – tiller, rudder, handrails, cleats, coamings, wooden sheet blocks, for example - are really dull and the sanding soon turns the old coating to powder. I take the opportunity to repair a slightly damaged wooden sheet-block and fill the cracks that have appeared in the laminated tiller using 5-minute epoxy glue before applying a coat of Cetol Marine. All the very exposed surfaces are getting two coats. Wooden hatchcovers and the skylight, on the other hand, have been protected by Sumbrella slipcovers or the sun awning (when we are at anchor). They look much better by comparison and one coat should suffice.

I am surprised at how much I am enjoying this work. As a matter of course I avoid overworking physically. I start as the sun is getting up (wiping off any dew and allowing surfaces time to dry), and then I get out of the sun by 0930. I don’t go back at it until after 1630 or unless it turns overcast. That tropical sun is just too hot for Ol’ Gringito! Although I am doing all the sanding by hand (our inverter is hors de combat and we don’t have a gasoline electricity generator aboard), and although my shoulders are somewhat stiff each morning, the work progresses quickly. Any Cetolling has anyway to be done in the late afternoon or early morning as the direct sun leads to gas bubbles on the surface. On the other hand, if the Cetol has not dried enough before the dew falls at night, it will leave spots. If I do Cetol in the morning, once it is tacky to the touch I get some shade over it before the sun can harm it.

Painting gives you a good feeling of achievement. Things sure look better once they are coated, but of course – and here is the only downside! - now it makes the white-painted deck house and decks look even shabbier!

Palm oil

There is a steady stream of heavy tank trucks down the nearby coast road, ‘Aceite Vegetal’ lettered on the sides. I discovered that palm oil is an important agricultural product for Cost Rica. Of the 160 million tons of oils and fats produced worldwide, 48 million tons is palm or palm kernel oils. That’s the biggest single source of oil and fat. Palm oil is used in processed foods, soaps, cosmetics, bio-diesel, etc. ( and )

Here locally, there is a hardly-noticeable station on the water’s edge just opposite the big banana docks. Only a few pipes peak out of the earth near a little ‘watchiman’ shack. There always seem to be at least one or two rigs standing there, their diesels idling.

As I walk past there on the way back from the bus terminal (basically a little hole-in-the-wall ticket office down near the road to the Port Captain), I stop to ask the 20-something-year-old attendant what is going on here. He tells me that the tank-trucks bring the palm oil to this terminal from processing plants inland nearer the oil-palm plantations. Here in Golfito the oil is stored in an underground or underwater tank. Once a month a tank ship comes and pumps it into the ship’s hold and delivers it somewhere, he didn’t know where. The guy’s job is to help the drivers hook up the flexible, fire hose-type connectors and keep track of who brought what and when.

Du lernst nie aus! (literally, ‘You never learn out!’)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, Wednesday, 06 January 2010

My first impressions of Golfito, at the extreme SW corner of Costa Rica (i.e., Pacific coast) have been reinforced by being here for a few weeks. For boats and ships, it is a perfect harbour, well-sheltered, plenty of depth, good holding. Golfito is sheltered and calm; it is also rural and sleepy.

The little town stretches itself along the waterfront. At the one end there is a more open space where United Fruit built its town for the gringos. The domestic style is ‘tropical bungalow’ and reminds one a bit of the Canal Zone in Panamá. But, after United Fruit left in 1985 when world banana prices crashed, the houses were occupied by locals and the standard of maintenance is perhaps lower than it should be. This is certainly true of the big banana-ship docks; they are used by the Costa’s (CR Coast Guard) and occasionally, I think, by the US Coast Guard as well. Small cruise ships arrive, but anchor off the docks and ferry passengers in. In a cleft of the high, jungled hills, where morning mists hang around until sometimes mid-morning, there is an airfield with regular daily feeder flights to San Jose. There is furthermore a large and well-visited Duty Free Centre (aka “el deposito”), and on holidays and weekends it is best to stay away. Buyers are after bargains on large household appliances. (They must come to Golfito, apply at the Aduana (Customs) for visitors pass and then wait one day. No doubt this does something for the local hostelry.) Out along the old railroad bed (back in UF days there were no roads in, only railway, ship or plane) there is a smattering of houses, workshops, fish plants and marina cum hotels.

There aren’t many yachts around this year and the destination tourists aren’t coming either. The world economic crisis impacts little Golfito. The sports fishing boats were not active even over Christmas and new Years. The real estate brokers, the tour guides, the shopkeepers and the hoteliers are twiddling their thumbs. CR has a reputation, partially deserved, of being the real McCoy for eco-tourists, and there are plenty of tropical and mountain rain forests to visit. Still, if you are in freezing Boston and trying to make the winter’s heating oil bill, you might just look at the pictures in National Geographic this year.

Yesterday I had to pick up a refilled propane bottle (you take them to the cashier at Supermercado Pearson, which is right opposite the Tourist Office and, since they have U.S.A./Canada fittings, they are sent away to the filling centre. Thursday or Friday is the day to drop them off and you will get them back by Monday. I paid under $15 for a 20 lb. (5 gal.) can. Instead of paying $5 to land the dinghy at the virtual marina (Land & Sea), I simply rowed down to the dock and beach behind the Tourist Office. The docks are not much good to you so you wind up landing on the black, muddy beach. It’s shallow so you can wade in and out. Use an anchor to keep your boat from floating away when the tide comes in. it is also very busy because of the number of taxi-lanchas , bus-lanchas, fishermen, private lanchas and even the police lancha that were there. I sort of had to fight my way in and out, but all was done in good cheer. Most cruisers have inflatable dinghies with motors and are afraid sometimes that the motors will be stolen (they are on occasion) but usually at night from dinghies tied to the back of a yacht). But inflatables are easier to get into crowded and tight places since they just rev up the engine and barge in. A rowboat like ours is handicapped because there is no room to use the oars. But, we have always so far managed somehow. We have always managed, too, by, the way, without a motor. It’s one less thing to fix and maintain (our rigid dinghy needs care and maintenance from time to time, but so do inflatables), and we don’t have to carry inflammable and stinky gasoline on board

I draw my dinghy up the beach and, while I wait for the tide to come back I pick up my propane bottle and do some shopping, then have a super vegetable and beef soup at the outdoor restaurant just at the beach (El Muelecito). There was a big soup bone with lots of meat on it and all kinds of veggies, some of which I didn’t recognise. (It cost Colones 1,200 (roughly $2.50) but very filling. Interestingly, I see several young locals getting wifi at the next table. It comes form the Tourist Office and you can get wifi reception anywhere in the town centre. I chat with various locals and miscellaneous gringos who are waiting for the passenger ferry to sites around the Golfito and the Golfo Dulce, especially to Puerto Jimenez. The gringos are mostly from the U.S.A., but there are English people too. They have all come for cheap land in the tropics and all make some money off the tourists, e.g. tours, horseback rides, hotels, B&Bs for hikers or surf dudes, etc.

Golfito looks more prosperous than much of Panamá City. There is a somnolent business about the place around noon. Dogs lie in the shade dozing, people move a little more slowly. I run into Bryan and we sit down for a coke together. He is looking for engine parts but takes a break from the sun. He always had time for a chat. Or, maybe he is just such a nice guy that he doesn’t know how to shake me off! He explains to me what he means when he tells me that he is “a union electrician”. This means the union has trained him in his job, and the statement has real meaning in the U.S.A., where the companies don’t to the trades training, the union does. They get paid more and they can carry their benefits, etc usually from one qualified employer to another. The most important is the pension, which is funded and managed by the union itself. Bryan worked is high-tech situations like nuclear power stations where, if only for the insurance requirements alone, the wiring cannot be left to be done by wire-twisters. He is 46, worked for 25 years, bought a boat and lived and got it ready in San Francisco, left off working five years or so ago and a year ago he met Amanda, who is a writer and journalist. She moved on board. Amanda is also a sail-maker and canvas-worker and has patched up some of our Sumbrella hatchcovers. They are really nice couple and enjoyable to talk to. They will probably be crossing the Pacific soon too.

I live my quiet life, getting up at dawn, one of the nicest times of day, to make a coffee and read. Then I do some stretching exercises and get at one or two of the little mobs I always have on my To Do List. The last few days I have been finishing the lightboards that I had made in Panamá City. Surprisingly, I don’t actually do much woodworking on the boat, which is disappointing because I like the feel of wood and like to work with it. But for all the horror stories that Clorox-boat owners like to repeat back at me, the wood is almost non-existent as a problem. Engines and electricals, yes. Maybe then sails. If we had a flush toilet or a furling headsail or a cooling system for the motor, probably they would come in for maintenance. Oh yes, and outboard motors. But, wood? Not really. Of course, I do a lot of painting! It’s a wooden boat, after all!

I use acetone and bleach to get the oil out of the teak as far as possible. Then I put three coats of Cetol Marine on it at he little work area at Land & Sea marina (Sikkens (the Dutch Akzo Nobel Group) ‘Cetol’ is a synthetic varnish and needs far less upkeep and less sanding). But it seems to take a long time for everything to gas off and cure, and when I bring them out to Vilisar I damaged the soft skin on the lightboards. Drat! There is a gloss coat you can put on which is better UV protection. It certainly makes the wood finish look really luxurious. But, although it is perhaps better, I use it sparingly because, not only does it take even longer to cure than the regular Cetol, it is almost too lush, like gloss over a woman’s lipstick. Too much!

The two copper navigation lights can be re-mounted now too. They had over the years become very, very grey from salt and sunlight. And then, when the other yacht dragged down on us a few months ago, the starboard navigation light was crushed like a beer can. Ali, the German Welder, straightened it out as much as possible, but it still looks a little misshapen. Put it down to the patina of experience. I dig out a can of copper cleaner from a drawer somewhere and have a go. Hey, Presto! They actually begin to regain their original dark-copper lustre. While the wood-finish continues to cure, I shall work on them a bit more while I listen to classical music on my MP3.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, 05 January 2010

I guess it was no different than other routine jobs on the boat. And Panamá City is famous: you can get anything there, we had been told repeatedly. Why, it’s just like the United States. So, there should have been no problem beyond the nuisance.

We had been at anchor for several months with an engine problem, one of those small things – in this case a $4 oil seal - that turn into nightmares of time and money. While minding our own business at anchor, however, one of the afternoon squalls so typical of wet-season Panamá blew up. A large German-built, steel yacht, heavily constructed and owned by an ancient American who seemed long ago to have given up regular maintenance or indeed even regular bathing and had let both himself and the vessel become derelict – the boat dragged around the anchorage nearly every afternoon for a week. There was a final episode, however, before the Port Captain finally impounded the boat and secured it to a stout buoy -about the only useful thing I have ever seen the Port Captain do for all the money yachties have had to throw at him and his flunkies.

The steel yacht finally one day dragged its anchor several hundred feet towards shore, grazing a yellow sloop anchored just upwind from us and wrecking its anchor bow rollers. Then Vilisar was addressed. By the time I arrived out from in the dinghy through howling wind and driving tropical rain, the boat had reached us and was in the process of smashing and crashing its way down our starboard side. Fortunately, the squall petered out as suddenly as it began and others were able at last to pull her off of us. The damage was plain to see but mostly not structural. One of the bowsprit whisker shrouds was ripped off and the shroud was hanging in the water from the bowsprit. And, the starboard lightboard now hung in two splinters from its lashings; the copper oil lamp for navigation looked like a crushed beer can.

There was other damage, but in the end the stout nature of our wooden sailboat prevailed and damage was relatively limited. But how to deal with the lightboard? We needed the lamp for navigating at night and we needed the wooden lightboard to hold the lamp.

I had always found Roger a great resource. He had once been the dockmaster at that yacht marina in Colon that the Panamá Canal Authority had suddenly shut down. Roger, descendent of Caribbean Canal workers, decided Colon was no place to raise children and had moved his family to Panamá City where he started driving taxi with a focus on yachties. It had taken him a while but now he knew his way around and he knew what kind of assistance cruisers needed. Of course, there were the normal provisioning stops for those planning a South Pacific passage. But, cruisers are special need customers. They were always looking for some spare part or some specialist service to keep their boats operating. Why don’t Japanese build boats as well as cars? There would be no need of all this.

Roger is cool. I met him one morning by appointment at Las Brisas de Amador, a bullshit name for a polluted anchorage open to northerlies and an over-priced dinghy dock without even the pretence of facilities. I had the shattered starboard lightboard with me. Like so much of the sailboat it too was made of lightweight yellow cedar. I needed to find a local carpentero who could make me new ones. The port lightboard had been broken years ago off the Pacific coast of Baja California and I had glued and screwed it back together. (That’s an interesting yarn too but not here.) I had decided to have the pair of them made new. But, since I didn’t have the materials there was no workshop on board and hand tools was not going to suffice here, I wanted Roger to take me to a local carpentero. No big deal. Just a simple carpenter that could cut out and glue up the two lightboards based upon the model I was offering.

I guess wooden yachts are something else in Panamá. At east Roger had never been confronted yet with the need for a carpentero. We had other errands to run and all the while Roger was asking people we were meeting to be pointed at a carpenters shop. When the control of the Panamá Canal passed to the Panamanians, many well-paid local craftsmen were laid off and had to find other livelihoods. Many started little one-man shops. There had to be a carpentero amongst them.

Finally a lady in a engine-filter shop told Roger about a carpentero in Rio Abajo neighbourhood. They made furniture but took on all kinds of work, she reckoned. Eventually we found it in a dusty back street. It was a large shop filled with unfinished cupboards and other items. Lots of sawdust.The two workers sanding a cabinet in the street outside waved us towards the back. We approached the office. I guess we should have been alerted by the fact that an elderly man was dozing in the office armchair and, when we knocked, was startled out of a deep siesta.

Clinton Henry, he said his name was. He was tall and might once have been meaty. But now he was quite advanced in years. His woolly hair was strongly flecked with white, his eyes looked watery and he seemed to have difficulty focusing. He moved slowly. As it turned out, like most black people in Panamá City, he spoke English. Nevertheless, Roger explained using the models just what we needed. No problem! You gonna do the finishing yourself? So just cut and glue, rightr? It’ll be ready in two days. Fifty dollars for the pair. But I need some money down for materials; teak would be best. I paid him $40, which I later regretted. How many people had told us never to give money in advance? But, he seemed serious and a two-day turnaround was great. And to make it even better, Roger offered to pick them up and bring them out to the anchorage for me.

After a week I finally heard from Roger by cellphone. He had been to the workshop twice and talked with Clinton Henry. The carpentero had started the job, and one of the boards was partially cut out of one-inch thick teak. But then Clinton Henry seemed to have run out of steam. Roger found him again, dozing in his office while his workers were busy outside. It took a minute for Clinton Henry to even recall the job. But, no problem! Two more days. Pick it up on Saturday. It’ll be ready.

Roger didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he called me on Saturday afternoon. You could hear him shaking his head through the phone. When he arrived that morning, Clinton Henry acted just as bemused as before. Surely he had only promised to make one lightboard for fifty dollars. Anyway, they weren’t finished. Tuesday, for sure!

I had given Roger an extra $20. The original price was to have been $50 and I paid $40 on account. But I knew there would be ‘an issue’ of some sort and left him with a bit more, just in case. Clinton Henry, when he came to his senses, fussed and argued and bargained. He tried to bluff his way to making only one lightboard. But finally, Roger told him ‘the man’ is getting really pissed off. There’s twenty dollars more when it’s all done. But get the work finished by Tuesday or there’s gonna be big trouble. The man’s going to go to the police.

In the end, the lightboards were made and Roger brought them out to the anchorage. I guess Clinton Henry was just getting on in his dotage. Dozing in the office was the way he stayed out from under foot at home. The workers carried the business. For all I know they were robbing him blind too. I gave Roger some money for his efforts. He is a great resource in Panamá City. Call him if you need a taxi or just need to know where to go to get something done.

He probably won’t take you back to Clinton Henry’s shop, however. If you need a small job done by a carpentero, go see Tito, the guy who runs the donkey engine at Balboa Yacht Club. According to Dennis, an American shipwright living on S/V Charlie in the anchorage, Tito does a pretty good job. Or you could just go by S/V Charlie one evening and find Dennis. For bigger jobs there are good carpenteros de navales (shipwrights) around Panamá City (e.g. Erwin and Ivan Pitti and family) or contact Jim Laing, a New Zealander who builds and repairs wooden boats.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


(NOTE. Man's idiocy should never be underrated. And whilst we might smirk at the provincial antics of other countries, don't forget the attempts of the fundamentalist-Christian mullahs to force the teaching of bad science in our schools that is ongoing at home. The whole thing might seem like a joke, but there are draconian punishments involved.)

From today, 1 January 2010, the new Irish blasphemy law becomes operational, and we in Atheist Ireland begin our campaign to have it repealed. Blasphemy is now a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine. The new law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.

This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

We believe in the golden rule: that we have a right to be treated justly, and that we have a responsibility to treat other people justly. Blasphemy laws are unjust: they silence people in order to protect ideas. In a civilised society, people have a right to to express and to hear ideas about religion even if other people find those ideas to be outrageous.

Publication of 25 blasphemous quotes

In this context we now publish a list of 25 blasphemous quotes, which have previously been published by or uttered by or attributed to Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Mark Twain, Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, James Kirkup, Monty Python, Rev Ian Paisley, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Frank Zappa, Salman Rushdie, Bjork, Amanda Donohoe, George Carlin, Paul Woodfull, Jerry Springer the Opera, Tim Minchin, Richard Dawkins, Pope Benedict XVI, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ian O’Doherty, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Dermot Ahern.

Despite these quotes being abusive and insulting in relation to matters held sacred by various religions, we unreservedly support the right of these people to have published or uttered them, and we unreservedly support the right of any Irish citizen to make comparable statements about matters held sacred by any religion without fear of being criminalised, and without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.

Campaign begins to repeal the Irish blasphemy law

We ask Fianna Fail and the Green Party to repeal their anachronistic blasphemy law, as part of the revision of the Defamation Act that is included within the Act. We ask them to hold a referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Irish Constitution.

We also ask all TDs and Senators to support a referendum to remove references to God from the Irish Constitution, including the clauses that prevent atheists from being appointed as President of Ireland or as a Judge without swearing a religious oath asking God to direct them in their work.

If you run a website, blog or other media publication, please feel free to republish this statement and the list of quotes yourself, in order to show your support for the campaign to repeal the Irish blasphemy law and to promote a rational, ethical, secular Ireland.

List of 25 Blasphemous Quotes Published by Atheist Ireland

Saturday, January 02, 2010

SOIREE MUSICALE ABOARD S/V JOHANNES BRAHMS Golfito, Costa Rica, Saturday, January 02, 2010

I realise that I forgotten to blog about the wonderful evening we had a few months ago aboard S/V Johannes Brahms out of Haifa, Israel. Joel (Israeli) and Patricia (Columbian) extended the invitation, and although we had seen Joel’s baby grand piano we had yet to hear him play. He is wonderful and capable of all types of piano literature from classic to jazz to pop. To get the grand piano into the boat required some structural modification of the main hatch and some removal of the bulkhead to the forecastle. He also had to remove the piano's rear leg.

Here are some pictures .

My attempts to attach a video of Joel playing Chopin failed miserably.

Also present: were Tom and Beate Lewandowsi (S/V Luka, Poland); Ron & Diane of S/V Batwing; Linda of S/V Linda Lea