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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

I am constantly amazed at the intensity of right-wing vitriol about the course the Obama Administration is steering to end the down-cycle. The government has stimulated consumer spending, arranged extra-ordinary government spending for roads or bridges, downside protection for families so they are not kicked out of the houses they bought at inflated prices and/or because they have lost their jobs and incomes. The U.S. Government has tried to save a decrepit General Motors (and therefore jobs making cars nobody either wants or can afford) and thrown huge amounts of money at the big banks to prevent their collapse in the now vain hope that the banks would resume lending. The stimulation package, though huge, has been too little, as even Nobel Prize economists have pointed out. Support for the inflated and dangerously out-of-control financial sector has largely been a waste of money when viewed from the point-of-view of the public good. The only real beneficiaries have been their shareholders, their senior executives and those employees who have managed to keep their jobs. Indeed, with government backing, the banks seem to have been able to taken even greater risks, and have been speculating at tremendous profit in the currency, bond and commodity markets.

Ideally everyone would prefer that there be no economic cycles. But we also know that, left on its own, the capitalist system will have periods of rapid growth followed by rapid downturns in economic activity. Not infrequently, the up-ticks are really speculative ‘bubbles’, i.e., based upon subjective values. One famous historical bubble/collapse was the fabulous prices offered for Dutch tulip bulbs; another was the inflated prices paid for radio stocks in the run-up to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The real-estate bubble in the U.S.A. is a more recent and potentially more damaging bubble. Bubbles are exacerbated by readily available and relatively cheap credit. The bigger the bubble component of economic growth, the greater the extent and speed of the resultant collapse of economic activity. Stock prices fall, asset prices decline, consumer or industrial demand falls away, workers and employees are laid off, etc. etc. and general economic activity slumps. Economic problems also create social problems: unemployment, homelessness, increased crime, lack of medical attention, no money for schools or basic government services like police and fire-fighters. They can also become serious factors leading to political stability as the losers become angry at their betrayal and impoverishment. They turn either to the ballot box, and when that fails, to direct action.

Basic knowledge about how to manage an economic cycle has been around for seventy-five years. There are three, or perhaps four, main tools to even out the cycles”

• Interest rates
• Tax rates
• Government spending
• Do nothing

Do nothing. This is apparently what conservatives in the U.S.A. mean when they say there is too much government. For the government to do nothing will not meet the demand that government keep the economic alive and well, nor will it protect persons from the social impact that a serious decline in economic activity brings in its wake (e.g. unemployment, debt, homelessness, lack of medical treatment, etc. etc.) the conservative purists claim that the economy is self-regulating and eventually things will turn to the better. And, in fact, they are probably correct. But, the down-cycles (depressions or recessions) can and often are seriously painful for more and more in the society, and the period until an up-cycle begins again can be very long indeed. Meanwhile there is manifold hardship in the lives of more and more people. In the 1930s people were starving and the numbers of homeless and the numbers of children going to bed hungry is rising shockingly at present.

Since at least the end of the Second World War doing nothing has not been seen as a viable option for government. Governments in every industrialised country have accepted the responsibility vis-à-vis their voters of managing the economy. The conservative movement led by the likes of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher can be seen as a revolt against this responsibility, not least because the well-heeled have been able to convince the aspiring and comfortable middle class that their taxes are unjustifiably going to support the ne’er-do-wells in society. Along with turning their ire against the so-called beneficiaries of government programmes, i.e., against racial minorities, the economically and socially dispossessed, many voters have also swallowed whole the argument that ‘Government is not the solution to your problems. Government is the problem’. Once conservatives came to power, governments at all levels would magically somehow be more-or-less abolished (i.e., ‘shrunk down until it was so small that it could be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub’). Conservatives therefore seem to feel no great obligation to state what their administrations actually intend to do beyond cutting taxes. This they have done, which of course have benefited those most with the greatest incomes and is one of the causes of this depression.

Taxes and interest rates. Fighting a depression with tax tools is generally of little value since the tax base (i.e., incomes) will have shrunk sharply; cutting taxes for the unemployed or unprofitable businesses helps no one. Interest rates, once they have approached zero, where they are at present, can surely no longer be a viable tool. And anyway, both tax and interest rate tools take a long time to work themselves through the economy. Cheap credit will not get companies to build new plants or build up inventories if they predict that consumers are unlikely to be spending. Consumers, on the other hand, are trying to limit their spending, clean up their credit-card debt, trading down to more modest cars and housing.

Of the three active tools available to economists eager to stimulate the economy, only government spending can have any reasonably quantifiable and immediate impact The more the spending the greater the impact. It almost doesn’t matter what the money is spent on, public works like roads, airports, new post offices or unemployment benefits, healthcare, etc. Compared to tax relief (meaningless if you have lost your job) or lower interest rates (meaningless if you are not borrowing or if the rates are already so low as to be negligible,), only spending can stimulate the economy. And government is the only body that can do it because it is the only institution that can raise money.

If the government has not saved money during past good times and reduced national debt, it will have to raise money by borrowing in the form of government bonds. Of course, if they over-borrow and therefore over-stimulate there will be inflationary effects down the road. This is what conservatives keep pointing to in their critique of the Obama Administration. It is almost beside the point that they also act as if it had been the government who created the depression in the first place, when it in fact private investors playing the real estate get-rich-quick or the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t financial game (in the few years before the real estate bubble burst, for example, 75% of the house purchases in the U.S.A. were being made by persons who had no intention whatsoever of living in them, i.e., they were just buying cheap and selling dear, i.e., widespread speculation that created the bubble). All this was ably assisted by the Fed with its cheap money policies. So far from exhibiting any caution about it, the Fed even denied there was a real estate bubble, which kinda tells you how astute sainted Greenspan, Bernancke, Geithner, Paulson and all were. Their cohorts at the big banks were no better. But, even middle class players were in the market trying to make a killing.

The conservatives seem to deny that government has any role to play in the economy. But, without an active government role in the economy, who is left to stimulate the economy in a depression? Who acts as the protector of the ‘public good’, whatever that is defined to mean. Who can create legal structures to prevent future excesses? The Clinton Administration got rid of the Glass-Steagal Act and various other controls over banking excesses; they were thus declaring a hands-off role for government. The George W. Bush Administration helped drive the economy into depression with its massive tax cuts for the rich along with hugely expensive military adventurism abroad. Even Ronald Reagan, who legitimized decades of anti-government rhetoric and ostentatiously cut income taxes, had finally to admit that you cannot have a 600-ship navy without tax income. Reagan therefore subsequently raised income taxes three times. Clinton who placed a balanced budget above whatever liberal principles and projects he had promised, who balanced the accounts and even began to reduce the debt at the cost of social programmes like welfare. Nowadays, only oil countries have surpluses; countries even like Canada. Just as orthodox neo-conservatives have demanded, George W. Bush made the government a mendicant. The Fed tried to steer against it with cheap money. It led to the real estate bubble.

To date, the Obama regimes’ only real initiatives have been the $700 billion stimulation package (too little and too late) and an attempt to introduce universal healthcare, the aim of which should be to give everyone access to the medical system while at the same time protecting them from financial disaster. By taking the public option off the table for whatever tactical political reasons even before starting the legislative initiative, the whole point of it seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Now it looks like a life-support system for the corporations, delivering customers to them in droves. The healthcare package, on the other hand, does also have some economic stimulation benefits.

In the debate about how to get the economy going again, the Democrats, including the President, do not seem to be convinced of their own policies. The economic advisors, (not for the moment mentioning the those who advise him on foreign policy) are after all nearly all conservative re-treads from the Clinton regime (I don’t mean they have failed to be influential or even make a lot of money or a name for themselves; I mean only that they have failed to manage the economy to the benefit of anyone but their buddies and perhaps themselves, certainly it is now manifestly clear not the public good). Advised by Yesterday’s Men, Obama is beginning to pay the price; the first hit was the loss of a secure Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts. A greater punishment awaits him in November’s mid-terms. The progressives, the young and the black and perhaps the idealistic middle class who voted for his promise of Change You Can Believe in are disillusioned and cynical.

Why isn’t Obama making this into a great moral crusade the way the Republicans have been doing? There is a tremendous moral and even economic argument for healthcare and a resurgent economy. After their cronies crashed the economy, the Republicans now have the audacity only to bitch about taxes and put forth phoney non-arguments about death panels and the like. They haven’t got any real suggestions at all and still they make the running. The same people who advised Bill Clinton to become more conservative in his second term are pushing Obama to do the same. In other words, to eat the promises he made to become president.

Perhaps it’s too late. But, Obama still has a chance to win back broad popular support. He won his office by getting people to the polls who do not ordinarily vote at all. They will stay home in November unless they can be roused again. Obama should not leave the moral arguments to the right.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, Thursday, February 11, 2010

The steady tropical rains in Panamá last summer made a complete mess of Vilisar’s deck paintwork. What the rain didn’t achieve the tropical sun did. After each rain parts of the deck paint had lifted and we were tracking flecks and chips of paint into the cabin once it had all dried. There was probably 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch of old enamel containing sand (non-skid) to be removed.

After Kathleen left for Germany to work for a couple of months, I made contact with a machine and mechanics shop near the virtual marina. The first task was to pump out the microbe-contaminated diesel fuel that had been clogging our fuel filters. In the course of this I met Chiso (one nickname for Francisco), a mid-fifties local guy who does fiberglass and painting work. He said he would be happy to work on lifting Vilisar’s old paint and painting her anew. Unfortunately, he could only work on Sundays until his current project (re-fibre-glassing a fishing boat’s fish tanks) was completed.

He arrived on the following Sunday with a big angle grinder, heavy-duty #36 discs and his lunch in a bag. But one look at the sad decks told him that the sand in the paint was going to mean plenty of grinding and lots and lots of discs. He probed around with a putty knife and in no time was lifting large patches of old paint. He decided that this was the way to go and that sanding could take place once the wood was more-or-less laid bare. Over three hot and sunny Sundays he basically lifted all the old paint with his big, tough hands while quaffing a cold beer every couple of hours. I couldn’t have lasted an hour out there, beer or no beer. Beer became an issue because, while we have beer on board, we have no refrigeration. The second day therefore, Chiso was standing at the floating dock when I rowed in to pick him up; he had a workman’s round cooler full of ice and immediately plunked six or eight beers into it as soon as he arrived aboard. “I always have two beers for breakfast”, he told me. Given the intensity of the sun and his heavy physical labour he needed it. I certainly never saw him in any way drunk, incompetent or out of line.

It had four or five long working days over three or four weekends to get everything cleared down to the bare deck planks. That left the lazarette deck and various other areas still with the old paint. I feared they would never get done in this round of painting. In a small talk with Chiso one day I asked if we shouldn’t just wait until he had finished the old project and then focus on Vilisar. It is hard to imagine the amount of old paint dust and saw dust that is thrown up by the grinding machine once that came into play. Despite closing down every opening to belowdecks and turning of the cabin fans, dust was still getting inside. Outside looked like the aftermath of the Dresden bombing! I was getting tired of having to clean up every Sunday night or Monday morning. Couldn’t we just get this done in one go? I would wait until he was available. “Claro!” he replied. “Hablamos a Miércoles in la tarde.” (Great! Let’s talk on Wednesday afternoon”)”

To my great surprise Chiso showed up by panga on Tuesday morning around 0700. He had arranged for a spot at a dock near where he lives about 5 kilometres farther up the gulf at a little one-street, waterside hamlet known locally – wait for it! – Kilometro Cinco. In a few minutes Vilisar had upped anchor and we were steaming along; thirty minutes after that we were moored alongside a blue and white fishing boat where the Caterpillar engine mechanic was working on the engine. The captain – he introduced himself as Ponce – was tying us off and placing big fenders. Jose, the owner of the house cum workshop at the top of the dock was there too and soon a long extension cord was being run to us and Chiso was creating more clouds of dust. We had made sure we were anchored well off when we were grinding before. Here, nobody seemed to mind. Another fishing boat was having its small diesel engine taken apart and worked on. A huge fishing boat owned by a Gringo who had been converting it to a pleasure boat and a carpenter who worked under the pavilion at the top of the ramp completed the group picture. Oh, I forgot the various fishermen who were hanging about or doing desultory jobs and the young boys who are on summer vacation from school until Monday and like to come down and hang out with the men. Not one woman in sight the whole time Vilisar was tied up there (altogether five days and nights). I chat with the men who keep up a continuous chatter with each other while they work. They make no effort to curb their turn of speech which is heavily laced with words that would turn your mother’s hair grey. It certainly expanded my own Spanish vocabulary!

Ponce is captain La Amistad, the big fishing boat to which we are parallel-tied. He has a kind of natural country charm and points out that Vilisar has a lot of growth on her bottom. I had been planning to dive and clean it this week. Would I like him to clean it? Yes. Quanto? In typical Tico (Costa Rican) fashion he quoted a price three times what anyone in their right mind would pay in the U.S.A. or Canada. I made him a more reasonable offer, but he didn’t want to accept. I told him quietly that I would just do it myself, then. OK! he replied, I accept your offer. Ha! I’m getting better at this!

While he was cleaning the prop and hull I asked Chiso if Ponce was a good worker, and should he work on the painting project too. Chiso only has three days available and it would be better if he not only had somebody to help, but also somebody he can talk to. I agree a price and an hour later Ponce is popping a cerveza (beer) and sanding away with gusto.

Eventually Chiso has ground off the lazarette deck down to the planking. You can’t believe how pleasing the bare wood is to the eye! George Friend, the original builder back in Victoria, surely knew what he was doing some thirty-five to forty years ago! The great expanse of the two-inch thick red cedar planks, now covered by me last week with pristine white wood priming paint, was already a joy to see (I also registered that all the caulking was in fine shape). The lazarette deck is even more impressive because of its complicated layout. I get busy cleaning up the dust and paint chips, sweeping everything into a garbage bag. Once clean of dust, Ponce starts laying on a layer of thinned-down primer as a first coat while joking with Chiso and one or two fishermen who come to chat and watch.

Within the hour Ponce‘s two boys, Kelvin, 15, and Carlos, 10, are down to see what’s gong on. The proud father tells me that Kelvin is a lady’s man but doesn’t much like boats. Carlos loves to be around the dock. Kelvin clears off fairly quickly in case he is put to work, his father laughs. Carlos lies under the awing, watching and absorbing by osmosis the life of a man in rural Costa Rica.

At the end of the second day at the dock, everything has been ground free of paint or, if in reasonably good shape, just sanded. After a farewell beer for the evening, the men leave and I sweep up everything, wash down the decks, first with buckets of salt water followed by a degreasing and a rinse off with the fresh-water hose. This is just in time for a major squall that sweeps Golfito with heavy rain. I take a shower under the hose, let the heavy rain pour over me and retire dripping below to a cabin stuffed with deck items, tools and paint cans. And still covered in grinding dust!

Living here at the dock, I get to meet and know real Ticos. This is really almost worth the project, which I had been resenting because of the heavy work in the intense sun. There is a whole social atmosphere that is completely different from either our working life in industrial countries or the so-called ‘community’ of cruisers.

I mentioned the social aspects of working here in poor countries in comparison to more modern industrial economies. In our modern workplaces we are really working alone in our little cubicles, in our brains and in our computers. Chatter is disturbing and contacts to employees are by and large weak. Social life in the workplace, that is, is virtually non-existent, or should I say only ‘virtual’ as employees sneak time on Facebook or porno sites.

Here, I am immediately accepted into a man’s world. There are no women anywhere in sight. Would they even want to be doing work like this? Of course not! Nobody ever seems to be working alone. A mechanic has a helper to talk to; three young fishermen are over on the beach mending nets, chatting and laughing; Chiso is happier having Ponce working with him, and they keep up a steady patter. Chiso kept wanting to gab with me, and sometimes I did. But I am not quite up to his speed in Spanish. The young carpentero in his workshop up under the dock pavilion usually has somebody sitting around to chat with while he is building a frame for a double bed. There are fishermen on the way to the dock, for example, or Jose who owns the place who will sit in the rocking chair and chat.

What I see around me here is the way our grandfathers and great-grandfathers must have lived. Only men are at workplace; women stay at home with babies and the society of other women in the family or neighbourhood, the families living cheek by yowl and sometimes under the same roof, the houses all open to catch any passing breeze, the life basically outdoors, the distances between houses minimal and social exchange therefore constant and easy. The gravel road that services the little waterside community serves more to unite than to separate. Young boys come down to be with the men and learn from them. Our boys never see their dads at work (well, my kids saw me on the stage or singing, but never when I worked at the bank; I only rarely visited my own Dad at his place of business). The men work in long hours or in bursts of long hours and then hang around the rest of the time. The work day is irregular and can be long or short and always out-of-doors. Nobody seems stressed. When they ask me about working in Canada they mention not only the extreme cold but the constant stress of long working hours plus commuting to earn your bread, not seeing your family or friends during the day, etc. The idea of big bucks might be appealing, but you can easily see by their eyes and their pitying faces that they wonder people want to exist like that instead of living here beside the water with their families, neighbours and friends.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Golfito, Costa Rica, Sunday, January 31, 2010

It’s the last day of January 2010 and Vilisar has been in Costa Rica for over a month. Kathy flew out on Christmas Eve to work on a musical in Frankfurt for a couple of months and visit her parents in Baltimore and the way back. I stay with the boat and have a To Do List of nearly fifty items. Safe to say, it seems that I have completed almost nothing.

First, it took a while after Kathleen left to get adjusted to living alone again. And of course there was Christmas and New Years to get through. Yes, even cruisers get together for an ersatz family Christmas dinner. This year it took place for us at Land & Sea (TierraMar) virtual marina. Pretty small crowd, but quite multi-culti and cosmopolitan with Canadians, Americans, Danes, Peruvians, Costa Ricans and et cetera.

On the top of my TO-Do List was the job of pumping out the contaminated diesel fuel from the large tank in the engine room. It took quite a while to find somebody. In the best Costa Rican tradition, they bid three times as much as is fair and then get some poor sod from Nicaragua to do the actual dirty work at a fraction of the money. Well, I got the price down we got the job done. If you have any doubts about whether microbes can live in a pure (i.e., waterless) diesel environment, contact me and I shall be glad to give you the graphic description of what it looks and smells like. Keep adding your biocide to prevent any reoccurrence. And don’t forget that the jerry jugs on deck (which probably have not been treated with biocide) will grow organisms that will pass at least in part through your Baja filter. There are those who say that biocide is actually bad for the diesel engine itself. A better solution would be an enzyme additive. This approach is used to clean up oil spills. Basically, the enzyme eats the microbes and when there are no more microbes, the enzyme disappears. Everything passes in a neutral way through the filters and the engine. That sounds like good news to me. I was told that you could buy some at Abernathy in Panamá, but I intend to order a bunch of bottles from the States and have them shipped through Airbox. (The same company makes a diesel additive that is essentially ethanol. If you have fibreglass fuel tanks the ethanol will first dissolve the epoxy and feed it bit by bit into your engine to glog everything up permanently. Eventually your fibreglass tanks (being stripped over time if its epoxy) will delaminate and your boat will be flooded with diesel.)

Along with replacing the bobstay and boomkin whisker shrouds with galvanised chain (the lengths were cut from the long spare anchor chain I carry in the bilge), I have been addressing other smaller issues too. I put several coats of Cetol on nearly everything except the mast. I have run out of Cetol but at least most of the external brightwork at deck level has been treated. It’s surprising how much there actually is once you start! Some of it was in very bad shape; that tropical sun takes a heavy toll of all surfaces and coatings - and of sails and canvas, as well, of course. Getting this Cetolling done would normally take only a couple of days even with 24 hours between coats. But, of course, you cannot be outside applying Cetol in the intense sunshine or when it’s dewy in the morning or when it’s threatening or actually raining. I try sanding early in the morning (finish outside work by 0900 or 0930 at the latest), and then apply Cetol after 1600, having protected the surfaces from the afternoon sun, if I can, so they are not so hot that it will cause the Cetol to blister. We have had heavy tropical rain on some afternoons and the threat of it on many others. Tim of TierraMar says Costa Rica is at present actually having a drought (due probably to the El Niño effects this year). But, I certainly wouldn’t want it any wetter.

The major project has been to strip Vilisar’s decks and cabin roof of decades of old paint. No problem! You just get an angle cutter with the appropriate rough sanding discs and get to work. This first of all implies that you have an angle grinder (I do). It also implies you have a source of 110v power (I don’t ever since some divers blew our 500 Watt inverter with their heavy-duty compressor). We also don’t have a gasoline generator, so I am forced to go begging. Jean-Yves on L’Or de Temp lent me his, however. Thank you, Jean.

I also find local help in the form of Chiso (short for Francisco), a local fisherman who mostly works at the machine and mechanics shop along the waterfront. He is available for a bit of weekend work and arrives with a huge angle grinder, for which I have already purchased sanding discs at the Chinese Ferratería. After I pick him up at 0600 and row out to Vilisar, he tries a few spots. But, we very soon come to the conclusion that the silica sand embedded as non-skid in the enamel paint will eat up discs in no time flat. He picks up a putty knife and starts lifting. “This is faster than grinding. Mehor!” Chiso says. He spends two whole days lifting paint, and, when it is basically off he grinds it off with the angle grinder. He also repeatedly states that ‘El sol está brava!’, which means the sun is angry, which means the sun is damned hot. I try rigging temporary awnings, but it is a losing game. He never stops working though, except for a large glass of water at frequent intervals. He also tries one of our warm beers with the rice and veggies he has brought for his lunch, but announces it to be bad for his stomach. The second day he arrives with a thermos cooler full of ice and a few beers. I add a few to keep things topped up. Cold beer, I have to admit, is the one thing I really miss being without refrigeration.

Anyway, by the end of day two, all the two-inch thick red cedar deck planking has been exposed. I stop frequently to admire the carpentry skills of George Friend, the man who built Vilisar. It’s a piece of art in its own way. The seams are all still in good shape except in one small section. I use filler before heading off to Pinturas Sur to buy paints. First of course I have asked a few people about procedures and materials. But, of course, nobody has a wooden boat down here. They all recommend two-part polyurethane. But that is too rigid for a wooden boat, I believe, even one as stoutly-built as Vilisar. I decide for traditional exterior enamel with fine sand sprinkled as non-skid. Of course, if I can get it.

Considering that we are really in the sticks here, I am surprised that there is such a good paint supplier. Pinturas Sur is a Central American chain and they have a broad range of their own coatings, additives and related materials. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful. I can’t tell how good the paints are, but they seem all right so far. Not overly expensive, either. U.S.$ 30 a gallon for enamel.

A heavy rainsquall comes up on the afternoon that we finally strip the decks to bare wood. I take it in stride, and give everything a good washing using some degreaser in the bucket as well. I reckon the hot sun the next day will dry things out rapidly. I was right.

The first thing to do is to sand the wood with 180 grit, according to the label on the can. I decide to apply two thinned-down coats of white wood primer. This implies sanding, and I get to work with the electric palm-sander running off the gasoline generator. With the foredeck and side decks sanded, the generator decides to pack it in. Several days of analysis and work by Jena-Yves and a mechanic, Alex, off a Canadian sailboat, the problem has not been rectified. Meanwhile, I try some hand sanding, and in two stages finally get one thin-ish coat of white wood primer on the bare wood. Now it can rain, I guess.

I go round begging for the use of a generator and get support from two young guys on the last legs of their circumnavigation. They are from British Columbia, though one immigrated there from South Africa. In exchange, I lend them our oil extraction doo-hickey and the MapTech book of charts for the Pacific coast to San Diego. I think they are leaving tomorrow or Tuesday, so I hope we can get the cabin roof done by then.

Chiso is ready at the dock at 0700 this morning, and starts right in lifting paint using the trusty putty knife. He sharpens it using the grinder discs, for which we start the excellent Honda generator. Parts of the cabin roof are in very bad shape, starboard-sides especially, although I am not sure why one side should be worse then the other. As we lift paint, it appears that it has been fibre-glassed at some point. Underneath we find canvas, which has been painted and impregnated with something. But, what? I must call Joe May in Alaska to ask what he used for paint. Maybe it’s actually canvas saturated with epoxy paint of some sort. Some paints are very unsociable, and don’t live well with their new neighbours. You certainly don’t want to apply the wrong stuff on the wrong base and watch the whole thing turn to a gooey mess that has to be cleaned off to start again.

Of course, now I have a completely new painting problem? Man! Sometimes I really hate boats! I suppose you could paint enamel over epoxy paint, if that is what it is; we did it on the dinghy. In fact, that’s what Dieter aboard S/V Amazon 1 recommends after applying a suitable primer for fibreglass. Chiso says I should go to Ferretaria Flores and get Unipar primer. Well, that makes me feel better! Lots of opinions. None of them in agreement.

There are a few more boats here than there were early in January, many just passing through. I met a Canadian boat called S/V Amazon, (Dieter), a sturdy looking vessel and in fine shape (I notice these things when my own boat is a mess). Turns out Dieter had his own yacht production company in Surrey, British Columbia. He was sympathetic to my problems and amazed we were doing all this work at anchor and not in a marina or haul-out yard. Yes, well… Then there is a large English boat with two young guys, a Canadian and a Swede) as crewmen for the pacific crossing (hired through Jean-Yves, of course, and a German cat called S/V Fee. The German word ‘Fee’ means ‘fairy’, but most people think it is a comment on the excessive charges by marina operators and government officials in Latin America. Norbert is a professor of something-or-other in Mannheim and wants to leave his boat somewhere safe. He thought he would have to go to San Diego, but I pointed out that Mexico, although definitively in the hurricane belt, has sturmfreie marinas in Puerta Vallarta, Mazatlan, La Paz and Guaymas/San Carlos. He was sceptical, but after researching, told me he was now very interested. “And Mexico is much, much cheaper than marinas in Central America, and have a quite reasonable approach to temporarily importing one’s boat.” Nicaragua or Guatemala are also good alternatives: cheaper; no customs problems for longer-term stays; less rain and lightening than Panamá or Costa Rica.

As the morning progresses, Chiso makes good progress with his putty knife. I have always assumed that over the wooden coach-house roof there would be canvas that had been painted. But, to my great surprise, it looks like fibreglass roving. By noon, he has finished one side including removing all the caulking to the brightwork (handholds and wooden trim), and in one or two spots cutting accidentally through the fibreglass cloth. I can repair this with epoxy. More, importantly, I shall now have to re-think how I am to paint the coach-house roof. Enamel doesn’t seem the right thing. But, I am as usual in over my head and will now have to seek advice. Maybe Dieter, the boat-builder, will have a couple of good ideas.

As Mark Twain said, “Life is just one thing after another.”

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Leaving Golfito, Costa Rica, for The Marquesas
At sea, Friday, March 19, 2010

Loyal readers of this blog will recall that Vilisar tried to leave Panamá
twice last year for The Marquesas (French Polynesia) only to be forced to
turn back by a bad oil seal and various other problems. Friends and
acquaintances were saying that these were omens. Who knows?

Her crew, Kathleen and Ronald, were in any case of two minds about setting
off again this season. On the negative side, we are heartily sick of
hanging around in various harbours when we want to be sailing somewhere.
Long passages, by contrast, get your blood moving. And, this one is very
long indeed: just under 4,000 Nm to the first islands and the same again
through the various South Pacific archipelagos to reach New Zealand by,
say, November. The killer factor that decided us for NZ was that we could
likely find a buyer for Vilisar in New Zealand if after the long voyage we
wanted to sell her.

Getting ready was largely routine by now; Kathleen took over the
management of the provisioning, charts, routing, etc., while I did my best
to get all the gear ready for offshore. The huge painting job was finished
for now, although of course it is in a sense never-ending. But Vilisar
looks beautiful as she starts out on her South Pacific adventure. The
ancient cabin wiring remains a problem. We had the whole engine room re-
wired while we were in Panamá and it looks great. Twice however, including
the day we were getting ready to leave Golfito, there was an electrical
hitch. This time the fuse panel on the bulkhead between the engine room
and the cockpit had corroded almost completely away. Robert, the
electrician, said the wood was wet. How that happened I do not know,
unless it got wet while we were heeled on a starboard tack and saltwater
rose in the cockpit through the scuppers. There was a minute crack in the
thick timber that makes up the bulkhead, so perhaps that was what
saturated the wood. And, the humid air in Golfito meant that the wood
would almost certainly never dry until we ran the engine for a long time.

Anyway, we replaced the panel and the fuses and re-wired everything.
Robert spent three hours on the boat on St. Patrick's Day to fix it and to
get the running lights working again (the wires had been nicked by the
painters and their scrapers, and rainwater had caused corrosion). When I
look back over the years, nearly all our technical problems on Vilisar
have been electrical. The basic engine is fine (except for the $4-oil seal
last year), but the old wiring left in the cabin needs to be replaced with
marine-grade stuff. Electricity and salt water or salt air!

Once Robert goes ashore at noon, we start pulling up the anchor. This is a
slow job since the chain is heavily bearded, and I have to clean it one
foot at a time as it comes over the bow rollers. Not such a difficult job
but very hot in the midday heat. Eventually the anchor chain is laid out
on the deck forward to dry and the anchor is stowed on the bow roller. We
motor down to the fuel dock.

We are slow in tanking up because we insist upon filtering everything that
goes into the tank. There is no automatic shutoff for the pump; we have to
keep stopping to measure the depth. After the onboard tanks are filled,
then come the four 5-gallon jerry jugs that will be stowed on deck. Of
course, we have to add diesel fuel additives like Startron Enzyme and
biocide in order to prevent the build-up of microbes in the tanks and to
stabilise the fuel (diesel fuel begins to decompose after about ninety
days, I have finally learned; microbes build up in the tanks and then clog
your fuel filters). I haven't always been assiduous in looking after the
fuel and fuel tanks, I have to admit; the deck jugs sat in the sun for
months, for example, before they went into the main tank. The result was
contamination and the tanks had to be emptied of their black sticky mess.

Stuart, an English-speaking local street person, swam over from the other
dock to help us get water and move jugs around. He had a trail of small
boys with him who were full of curiosity about a sailboat. When we pulled
away from the dock, we were carrying Stuart and several kids, who all at
some point sprang overboard and swam back ashore.

As we were rounding the big navigation buoys to go out through the ship
channel, we realised that the engine alternator was not putting out any
power. We called back to Land Sea Marina on our VHF radio and had them ask
Robert to meet us back at the fuel dock. After all, he had just re-
installed the fuse box and voltage regulator.

The boys are ecstatic to see us again, and soon there are about a dozen
10-12-year olds on board as we tie up at the nearby municipal dock. They
were already out of school for the day, and here for their afternoon swim.
Stuart is also still here and soon he had festooned Vilisar with red
balloons. We look like we were ready to embark on a honeymoon trip.

Robert needs about half an hour to get things right (he had not properly
seated some connection or other and this time he actually starts the
engine to make sure all is well). Soon we are pulling away from the dock
again, this time with Stuart and several boys along for the ride before
they spring overboard again. With many hand-waves and calls back and forth
we are once more headed for the exit channel with about 90 minutes of
daylight left. I suppose you could say we left twice today for French
Polynesia. Will we ever actually make it?

I personally like to leave in the morning. But, if we had waited we would
have been leaving on a Friday; I am not superstitious at all, but for long
voyages you take whatever advantages you can get. Anyway, as Kathleen
points out, we will have to motor for the first couple of days until we
can get out into the NE Trades; the Costa Rican coast is very airless. It
would be better to motor at night and be cooler.

As we came out into the Golfo Dulce (Golfito is the 'little gulf'), the
first rainsquall of our trip sweeps over us and soon I am soaked. The air
and the seawater are over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so you are not really
uncomfortable. But you begin to feel chilly after a while unless you get a
foul-weather jacket on. Ah, well, I suppose we should get used to it. We
still have to get through the Doldrums.

By the time the rain has passed over, the lights have come on along the
shore on either side and darkness is nearly upon us. The sliver of a
waxing moon is just about to follow the orange sun-ball below the western
horizon. Steering due S until we can leave the Golfo Dulce and then turn
west, the stars come out in the high heavens; the stars near the hazy
horizon will have to wait until later. The Southern Cross is just visible.
There are still lots of clouds around so my temporary guiding star keeps
disappearing. But it is wonderful to sit nearly naked in the cockpit and
let the balmy tropical air dry you off.

Down below, before she goes to sleep on the port settee, Kathleen heats up
some chorizo sausage and boils up a few potatoes in seawater. The spuds
are for a potato salad tomorrow or a quick snack at night; the spicy
sausages become hot dogs immediately.

Darkness falls and Kathleen is soon asleep. I am alone in the cockpit; it
is a good feeling even though anxieties are magnified at night. It is a
little bumpy still near the land, but in a few hours we shall be out on
the broad Pacific where we can expect the swells to be long and not too big
(we check these things out in advance at, which
gives wind, barometric pressure and wave forecasts for up to five days in
advance). We are being followed at about the same speed by another boat,
probably a fisherman. Eventually he picks up speed and passes us about
half a mile away to starboard and we have the ocean to ourselves for the
moment. Despite the dark and cloudy night, I can still see the lights on
the east side near the surfing town of Pavones, and the dark, relatively
uninhabited land mass of a cape to the west.

Our route to French Polynesia must first get us through the Doldrums
(properly called the ITCZ i.e., the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone), a
belt of windless and squally weather between us here at about 8 degrees North
and the equator. Above it we might hope to get some NE Trades winds and south
of it SE Trades. We have decided to head due west from Golfito until we
reach about 128 degrees N, hoping to get some benefit from the NE Trades, then
punching through the ITCZ until we pick up the SE Trades. Unfortunately,
there is next to no wind on the Costa Rica coast until you get about 200
Nm out.

This means motoring for a couple of days. If it is calm and the waves are
of low frequency (12-14 seconds), we should be able to steam along at
about 4-5 knots for the first couple of days. If we are really lucky we
might pick up some winds earlier. You can look at all the forecasts, but
once you decide and once you leave, you take what you get.

Morning, Friday, 19 March 2010

We expect it, but it is a bore anyway. The first few days at sea, and the
first night especially, are hard. Your sleep is disrupted by three-hour
watches, the gear never functions perfectly at first, and our Lister air-
cooled engine is loud and hot. The tiller pilot does not want to work for
us and it is hard to play with it in the dark. One of the toggles on the
drawers under the navigation table for some reason comes un-screwed and I
have to fish around on my knees on the cabin floor until I can find it. I
dig out a screwdriver and reset the toggle. Can't imagine the mess if
that drawer ever opened spontaneously while are heeled over at sea and
dumped its contents onto the cabin floor. Or on further thought, I don't
need to imagine it! We had just this happen to us in the first weeks after
we bought Vilisar in 2001. It certainly taught us to stow properly for
even small trips.

Each time I took my watch in cockpit last night, we experienced a black
rainy squall. Perhaps we are already in the Doldrums, whereas the weather
charts showed it much farther south. When I woke up for my shift at dawn,
however, the seas had calmed, and while there were clouds around there was
sunshine and no rain.

Kathleen and I spent some time chatting over coffee (Hmmmm!) and then she
makes up a great potato, apple, celery and cumin salad for breakfast. We also
eat the second half of the melon we started last night. With the engine
running for hours, the cabin gets very hot, and the fruits and vegetables
are ripening too quickly. Hope we get wind soon and can shut the engine
down! We need to get started at the fruit, though. We have provisioned
with lots of pineapples, watermelons, cantaloupe, a big bag of local
oranges, braids of onions, cabbages, green peppers and even tomatoes. We
can more or less predict when the stuff will go off; the potatoes, onions
and cabbages will last the longest. The melons, toms, celery and carrots
will go first. Kathleen picks things over nearly every day to make sure we
don't lose stuff.

As I go below from my morning watch, a pair of dolphins swim past us. A
good omen!