If you tuned in last month … we had picked up a boat in Bocas del Toro, Panama. She was a 43' fiberglass cutter that had been neglected and de-engineered to the edge of dereliction. Mike, Stacia and I had been enlisted to deliver the old cruiser to Venezuela - 1200 miles to windward through peak trades.
While back in Bocas, to help her sail upwind at her full potential, we had moved weight aft off the bow going so far as moving the primary anchor and full chain rode from the bow back to the saloon. We left the smaller hook with a short length of chain and a couple hundred feet of nylon line for our emergency anchoring needs. We also took the dinghy off the bow, cleaned and rolled it up and dropped it into a cockpit locker.
The list of predeparture boat issues was long but now we were finally at sea. Her saving grace was that she sailed upwind like a cat on a run. Someone at some point had rigged her with a racing headsail and rod rigging and her sleek shape and deep drop down keel lended themselves to upwind ripping. We had hoisted the old main in the channel and when we turned the corner we unrolled the headsail. Though covered in green mold (never seen anything like it) the sturdy Quantum sail otherwise seemed good as new. With the sails deployed the boat took off like a shot, slicing through the mounting ocean swell.
My immediate plan was to duck into Colon for fuel thus extending our motorsailing range for that first leg to Cartegena. It was practically on the way. And then stuff started to break. We put in the first reef and the reef line broke. Same thing happened with the second. A few hours later, in single reef conditions with two reefs in, the main exploded – earlier than predicted.
And we had other issues. We were sinking. The bilge pump would not maintain a prime even when we could keep the strainer unclogged. Along with the salt water there was oil and diesel sloshing around the bilge soaking up years worth of debris that had been swept under the floorboards. The bow nav lights went next. Water in the bilge had shorted out some exposed connections that had been, for some reason, installed there. The autopilot would not steer a straight course even with all adjustments tried. The high bilge fluids had started seeping into the water tank creating an interesting diesel taste from our washed dishes. Mike joked, "The only thing that hasn't broken yet is the head". Then we got serious and knocked on wood.
I always bring a bunch of automotive fuel filters to boats that haven't been moved in a while. With this boat I was prepared for the worst. With no fuel polishers available in Bocas we replaced the engine filters and I installed an automotive filter inline before the primary to keep the big chunks from entering the fuel system. Just before pulling into Colon I changed them out again.
We rolled into Colon in the morning and stole a spot at the dock in front of the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Mike went ashore to ask if we could stay in the space we were in. He got a big no from the harbor master. Mike described the guy to me. He sounded like the guy that was there last time. I knew his weakness. Equipped with a couple coldies (mordida) I tracked the harbor master down on his boat. He decided it would be alright if we went over and backed up to the quay. I liked that spot better anyway, less crowded, better breeze.
Once the boat was happy Mike, Stacia and I headed straight into the PCYC. It is one of my favorite spots. Most people are in a rush when taking in the sites and sounds of Colon and the PCYC as they nervously prep for their canal transit. I don't think they take the time to appreciate a place like this. I sit in awe thinking of all of the sailing legends that have drunk at that canoe shaped bar. Later, we headed back to the boat for some Mike Z seared tuna and a laptop movie, a slight hint of diesel wafting through the air.
We were at it first thing in the morning. We did another filter change and did a thorough check of the rest of the ER. Mike checked the gear oil and found that it was white. Seems the gearbox had sucked in some salt water when it was partially submerged. He flushed it. We pulled the sails off the rig and laid them out on the quayside lawn and took measurements.
There was rioting in Colon proper, what else is new, so our visit to town was put off. I finally got a hold of the owner and gave him a recap and we discussed options. There was no delivering the boat quickly without a mainsail this time of year. We talked about finding a ship to deliver her to the eastern Caribbean where we could limp into Venezuela. Plan B was for me bring in a new main and other parts when I returned after the Lats Share the Sail.
My team started the search for a shipping agent that could get us on a ship. We could see them in the harbor, container ships with yachts stacked on top headed to all parts of the world. Internet at the club was super slow and so we traded off doing online searches and then making calls at the pay phones. 8 man hours to do something that would have take 30 minutes back at my desk at Lats. The bids did finally come in. None of the yacht moving ships were picking up locally anytime soon and regardless, the shipping fees were astronomical. I look at it as job security. I also went through the boat and took pictures of different pieces of gear so that I could find replacements once back in the land of boundless internet.
When we moved the boat off the quay we decided to swing the electronic autopilot compass. We went into the channel and started doing the big slow circles required. The unit finally beeped that we had successfully completed the task. All set, I hit the auto button, let go the wheel, heard the motor run for a sec and then nothing. It had seized up. Seized up with the helm over to port. Without helm control you can often keep a boat drifting down the middle of a channel using just forward and reverse. I kept the boat catawampously in safe water while Mike hopped down and disconnected the motor arm from the quadrant.
I didn’t want to leave the boat at the fixed cement docks at the yacht club. Boats were having trouble with their fenders staying put. I had heard good things about the marina across the harbor and so we moved to Shelter Bay. While the PCYC is admittedly a slum, and I mean that in a good way, Shelter was plush. The docks were of the new cement and wood floating variety, there was a new restaurant and the whole place was well protected from the constant ship swell that plagued PCYC.
Just a few boats down was a boat I met when I was in Cartegena on Low Key. Bruce and his family had holed up in this marina and he was now running the boatyard. Our project boat would be in good hands at Shelter Bay while I was gone. Thanks to Mike Z and Stacia for keeping such a great sense of humor and for just being generally jovial in the face of near adversity.