Sunday, October 16, 2016

Passage to Golfito

Hi Everybody,

On a personal note Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Bt  is one of my “ heros”. In the ‘30s Maclean was a young British diplomat in Paris and found the scene posh but boring. He got himself transferred to Moscow where things were more ‘interesting’, witnessed the Stalinist show trials, and did some very, very adventurous traveling around what was the almost totally forbidden eastern Soviet Union. 

Maclean in Moscow
When the war came he wasn’t allowed to enlist because of his diplomatic status but could resign his post to “go into politics”. This he did, got himself elected to Parliament and immediately enlisted in the army as a private. The army soon figured out what they had and commissioned him an officer. After a spell with the Long Range Desert Group he was asked to join the newly formed SAS (“Special Air Services”, I’ve always loved that acronym, almost as good as SOG,  “Studies and Observations Group” ) and did his time.
SAS, the guy on the right
 He became the youngest Brigadier in British history and only one of two to go from Private to Major General. He was dropped into Yugoslavia to become Churchill’s personal emissary to Tito before it was even known for sure if Tito existed. He became a life long personal friend of Tito although he was a conservative member of Parliament for thirty years. In his great book “Eastern Approaches” he describes lying in a rocky ditch beside his burned out vehicle with a broken arm being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe as “a thoroughly uncomfortable afternoon”. I’ve always loved that as the epitome of macho British understatement. 
Scottish Baronet
So when I feel a bit put upon, when I feel  things could be going a little more smoothly, when life seems to be on the rocky side I ask myself if I am thoroughly uncomfortable. The obvious answer is no, things could be a lot more uncomfortable.  So get with it, quit whining and do whatever needs to be done.
Departing Panama City
We left our mooring at Balboa Yacht Club 0700 on the 11th. The fridge was working sometimes. The forecast was for light air on the nose for our final destination of Golfito, Costa Rica. And that held pretty well until Punta Mala where there was supposed to be a nice following current of up to three knots. Of course a current around a cape can lead  to a disturbed sea but what we got was one of the most ‘disturbed seas’ I’ve ever seen for the entire 60nm coast of the Peninsula de Azuro and well beyond. Nothing dangerous, there was no wind but about a six foot sea from all directions at once and seeming to come into conjunction at our exact position all night long. A trifle uncomfortable. And of course at about 0715, after twenty four hours of motoring, our super reliable Yanmar engine smoothly lost RPM to zero and quit. Hmmmm……a diesel needs two things, air and fuel…..seemed to be plenty of air about, must be the FUEL!  So we’re having fun banging around in this ridiculous sea  after a hot night and I start tearing into our spiffy Racor primary fuel filter system which proved to be full of gunk. Installed new filter element, primed the engine and it ran, for about five seconds. Further tearing into the system proved that no fuel was getting to the gunked up filter. Ah, hah, is fuel getting out of the tank? Got to the tank outlet, took the flared copper fuel line off the tank valve, re-opened the valve, and nothing came out, zero! I knew there was plenty of fuel in that tank. Got a thin stiff stainless steel wire and ran it up the tank valve, a little fuel came out and a whole bunch of nasty fibrous gunk. Ran the wire back and forth and wonderful,  (maybe) clean diesel started flowing smoothly. Put things back together, bled the system again and started up the trusty beast. Whoppee! It ran. And it continued to run. Sweet.

Janet in her comfy 'spot'.
So we proceeded on to Isla Rancheria, 33 hours and twenty minutes to cover 215 nm motoring the entire way. But the SE anchorage at Isla Rancheria is lovely and we had it totally to ourselves. No other boats, not even a light in sight at sea or ashore the two days we spent at anchor. I did a  long snorkel and a little walk  on the jungle fringed beach. We had a light breeze the first night and it was cool enough. The second night there was no breeze. And out came the no-see-ums!  Next morning we woke up to hundreds of no-see-um bites all over. A complete full body coverage. I thought at first I had got them ashore, and I probably got some, but Janet had not gone ashore and she’s almost as bad as me. Oh well, we look like a couple of spotted pox sufferers but it isn’t fatal and they’ll go away in a week.
Isla Rancheria, SE anchorage.
From Isla Rancheria we had about 120 nm to Golfito and I figured 20 hours enroute. Guess again, another confused night at sea,  less sea running but more wind directly on the nose and our speeds were down to three or fours knots all night. Things smoothed out entering the beautiful Golfo Dulce and we got into Golfito after almost exactly twenty four hours at sea.
Entering Golfito
Golfito seems very nice so far. We’re at Fish Hook Marina which is  comfy and welcoming. We have pleasant  boat neighbors and there are  tame Pelicans and Egrets around the docks. There are Scarlet Macaws and Howler Monkeys in the trees.
Fish Hook Marina
We got checked into Costa Rica and have seen a little of the town. I cleaned out fuel filter assemblies and changed elements on both filters this morning. I had left the tank full when we were home and didn’t expect much growth in the fuel from a full tank. Either there is a lot of bacterial growth in the tank in this climate or we got some bad fuel at Balboa when we tanked up. I doubt the bad fuel, they’re too busy for that kind of thing to be likely. I’m just happy things seem not to have gotten any worse and hopefully most of the bad stuff got shaken out of the tank in those rough conditions. We were able to run over thirty hours after I unclogged things.
After action clean up.
So we’re here for at least a month. We have some travels planned around Costa Rica so please stay tuned. And “Eastern Approaches” by Fitzroy Maclean is a great read. Give it a try and then maybe his biography of Tito, a much different book but also very good.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Panama Canal Passage

Hi Everybody,

We’re back in the Pacific! Home waters. Balboa would be happy,  the sea does appear to be very ‘pacific’ this morning.

Shelter Bay Marina
We arrived back at Shelter Bay Marina, where we had left the boat last spring, as scheduled on the 30th of September. The boat appeared to have been well cared for and the work I had requested was done or as nearly done as could be done before launch. I installed some new zincs and checked out systems (everything seemed to be working) and we were ready. Next day, right on time which is a minor miracle in Panama, we were in the travel lift and then back in the water. All went very well.

I trust these guys to haul me aloft?
One can arrange their own canal transit but most people use an agent to handle the arrangements and formalities. We used Erick Galvez of Centenario Consultant Agency. He proved to very helpful in many ways and is highly recommended. Through the agent the canal authority measures a boat and then schedules transit. We wanted the 7th and 8th of October and that’s what we were assigned. We had a few days to relax, get the boat in shape and wait for our crew to arrive. The one thing that proved a real pain was, and of this date still is, refrigeration. The damn fridge would not fridge. Or at least it would fridge and then not fridge. At Shelter Bay “Greg, the engine whisperer” is the systems and engine guru and we spent about four days struggling with this beast. Over time we thought it was running just right (at last!) and then it would fail after a few hours. When we finally departed Shelter Bay it had been working for a whole day straight. Guess what, it wasn’t working this morning. I got it cooling again but I have no faith it’ll be working tonight. Despite all that I learned a lot from Greg who is a good guy, he’s not to blame for this problem, and  he’s another guy we recommend.

Marina club house
Shelter Bay Marina itself is a good marina in a very secure location and strategically located to begin or end a canal transit. The docks are good and water and electricity are reliable. There are good shore facilities and a nice bar, pool and restaurant. We used the marina hotel rooms for a couple nights and for our crew when they arrived. They were comfortable and quiet. Shelter Bay was a very decent place. John Halley, the marina manager does a good job. Edwin Chavez, the yard manager, was efficient and effective. All in all we had a good experience at Shelter Bay and I think boats transiting the canal should not hesitate to use the marina.
Susan & Jim Tighe, Janet, Scott DeVries, John Powers
So our crew arrived the the 6th as planned. The canal authorities require a skipper and at least four line handlers. We had John Powers who’s a good friend from the Pacific days, my nephew Scott DeVries and Jim and Susan Tighe who are Janet’s sister and her husband. We had been told to take the boat across the bay to the “flats” anchorage area at 1300 on the 7th and contact Christobol signal station to schedule the departure which should be about 1500. At 1300 we arrived and talked with Christobol and were told to expect our “advisor” (our canal pilot) at 1545. The advisor actually arrived at about 1730 and we were off to the Gatun locks to start the transit. This would be a night passage through this first set of locks and then to an anchorage just inside the Gatun Lake. We would be rafted up to another boat, “Offshore Lady” a drop dead gorgeous Merritt 72 sport fisherman, in a center position with a large container ship and tourist ferry ahead of us in the same chamber. Our agent supplied the required gear which was four 125 ft lines not less than 7/8” in diameter and eight large white rubber fenders. In this case we tied up with the Merritt on our port side and used our lines to keep us centered on starboard. The Merritt kept us both in the center from the port side with their lines. We ended up using this arrangement through all the locks during the transit and it made life easier for both boats.

Our lock partners for Gatun
The passage through the first chamber went well and line handling was a task that we learned well enough. The canal shore staff throws a light line with a monkey fist from the lock walls and we tied that to our main lines and they would haul them to cleats on the lock wall. Then we would take in slack as the boat rose in the Atlantic side locks and slacked off as we descended down the Pacific locks. There was some of the expected turbulence as water entered or exited the locks but not as much as we expected. We had no problems maintaining position in the lock. It is a little interesting following a large ship at close quarters in the locks going up and being ahead of the ship in the locks going down. The worst case scenario would be if a lock door failed but so far that has never happened. Also interesting that the steel doors and concrete locks are all the originals that have been in constant use for more than one hundred years!We passed out of the Gatun locks and were directed to a mooring about a mile inside the lake where we spent a quiet night.

Night transit, Gatun locks
Next morning our new advisor was supposed to arrive at 0800 and arrived fifteen minutes early! Off we went across Gatun lake which when it was created by damning the Chagos river was the largest man made lake in the world behind the largest damn ever built feeding water to the locks, the largest concrete structures ever built! I believe the man made lake is still the third largest in the world and the other structures are pretty darn impressive to this day.

Shipping in Lake Gatun
The shoreline of the the vast lake is completely undeveloped and solid jungle as far as can be seen. We held to a well marked channel with a major vessel coming the opposite direction fairly often. From there it was through the famous Gaillard Cut, the highest terrain along the route. We were scheduled to arrive at the first Pacific side locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks, at 1155. We rafted up again with Offshore Lady to pass through the locks and also through the small Miraflores Lake to the Milaflores Locks.  By this time we were getting to be old hands at this business. And we were only a little amazed when the last lock doors opened and we were back in the pacific after about seven years. Home at last? Closer at least.

In the Gaillard Cut
Shore line handlers

In the Mirafloraes locks
Canal cable handling locomotive, usually about 8 per large vessel
 I think this was a fairly typical Panama Canal transit for a cruising yacht. There were no unpleasant surprises. The timing, once our advisor arrived the first afternoon, was spot on. Both advisors were very nice guys, very knowledgable and spoke good English. The weather could not have been better given the prevailing climate. Most of the time we had some cloud cover to cut the heat and a breeze. We had a little rain the second morning moving across the lake but it was over by the time we got to the locks.

We dropped our advisor just past the Bridge of the Americas and were almost immediately in the mooring field for the Balboa Yacht Club. The club launch showed us a mooring, we picked it up, grabbed our stuff for a night and went ashore on the Pacific side of Panama. Mission accomplished! Having treated ourselves to a hotel room, actually Jim and Susan treated us to a hotel room, we’re now comfy and air conditioned and in internet contact with endless hot showers and time to contemplate our next move. Tonight that means social time and a cold libation. Tomorrow that means starting to work our way towards CostaRica. It’ll be a couple days before we actually depart but that’s our next move.

Please stay tuned. Love to all!

Bill & Janet
SV Airstream

Sunday, May 22, 2016

To The Panama Canal

Departing Cartagena
Thump, thump, thump, THUMP, bang, bang, bang, Bang, BANG, SNAP!! To quote Janet, “What the ——!!"

Ah yes friends, the sounds of something nasty breaking on a boat. Immediate loss of propulsion although the engine is running fine. So what do you think? Transmission? That was my assumption, never having had complete faith in the Hurth ZF-15 system since we broke one heading up the coast of Northern California many years ago. But, what the——, it doesn’t really matter when you’ve no way to fix it at sea. This pleasant little event occurred on the way to Linton Bay Marina from the San Blas Islands of Panama about three forty-five on a rather choppy but light wind afternoon. So we got up sail, and the wind died. Then the wind filled in on the nose. We started tacking along the coast towards the narrow channel leading to Linton Bay from the east. We got ahold of Adam Baitel  the marina manager using the SAT phone and he made arrangements to tow us in when we got close. The wind finally veared around to the north. It got very dark. It rained. We were able to clear the last islands into the channel without more tacking. A panga and Adam in a skiff met us and towed us into an anchorage for the night and to a slip the next morning.
Hauled out a Linton Bay Marina
So it wasn’t the transmission. The propellor shaft, a 35mm diameter stainless steel shaft, had broken cleanly in half just where it exits the tunnel on the transmission v-drive. Pretty amazing IMHO. No impacts, no sign of external damage. The mechanic at Linton Bay was of the opinion that it had been an original manufacturing defect and it just finally broke after thirty years of use. That’s as good an argument as any.
160 ton travel lift at Linton Bay
We had departed Cartagena after a nice enough stay. Cartagena has a great reputation as an exotic and lovely city. Sorry to say we were not that impressed. It was ‘OK’. It was a decent stop on the way across the southern Caribbean but in our opinion not a destination in itself. The best time we had was going out with Dave Elbow and his son and son’s staff for an evening. Dave is a fellow NWA retired pilot, fellow anchorage pilot, four engine driver extraordinaire, and Bon Vivant!  Thanks Dave, for a nice evening.

With Dave, son and friends in Cartagena
 So we left Cartagena in very light conditions and motored the entire way to the Coco Banderas Cays in the San Blas Islands of Panama, 187 nm. Lovely anchorage in the Banderas. Beautiful little palm tree islands with white sandy beaches. No development. The San Blas are the home of the Kuna Indians and the Kunas have a semi-independent arrangement with the central government of Panama. 

San Blas anchorage
They maintain a very traditional culture and are famous for their intensely colorful embroidered appliqué “molas” which are truly lovely. So we had Kunas in their canoes stopping by every day to sell us molas and lobster, fish, coconuts, etc, etc. Very sweet and very interesting people. The whole Kuna/Panama arrangement is complicated but we would recommend the San Blas to anyone going that way. We only spent a week, people spend years cruising the San Blas.
Mola buying

From the San Blas we were heading to Linton Bay Marina to visit Felipe Serrano, an old friend who I saw last saw when we flew together in Greece in 1985. Felipe has his boat currently hauled out a Linton Bay doing a bottom job and other work. 

With Felipe Serrano
Linton Bay is a new marina with very nice new docks and a big new travel lift. They have very big plans for development and a great location. The other amenities haven’t come yet but they got us hauled and their maintenance staff was very helpful and competent. They actually had another 35mm shaft in stock. 

Look closely, the stub of the shaft is visible to the left of the green hose.
 Of course it had to be cut to length and machined to fit our MaxProp and the transmission coupling. We got the prop disassembled and the shaft out (in two pieces of course) and got everything machined and back together in a week. It coulda been worse and it coulda been a lot more expensive. Rather than life on the hard with no facilities available we stayed at a nearby guest house, the “Bamboo Guest House” run by a nice German couple and were a lot more comfortable than we would have been on the boat. The staff at Linton Bay Marina all proved to be very friendly and helpful. Other than the machining, I could have done this work myself, I’ve done it before, but having a professional to  work with was reassuring and we did well together. The run from Linton Bay to our present location was about thirty miles and things seem to be running very smoothly. With a little luck this repair will be permanent.

Flamencio and crew
So our present location is Shelter Bay Marina, just inside the breakwater at the entrance bay to the Atlantic side of Panama canal. We said goodbye to Felipe and our new friends at Linton and made it here in five hours. Shelter Bay is a very isolated spot but also a very full service marina with just about every comfort. We have nice new friends, Kenny and Betsy Linn, who we met in the San Blas and who are following a similar path, very near us here in the marina. 

Kenny and Betsy Linn
Tomorrow morning, the twenty-third, we haul out at 0800 and by afternoon we should be at the Crown plaza at the Panama City Airport. Tuesday we fly home via Atlanta and San Francisco. Its been quite a season of sailing and travel. I’ll recap and offer some comments in the next blog after we get home. Wish us a smooth trip!

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream