by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
“Duct tape won’t fix that.”
-- Kinky Friedman, Things You Would Never Hear a Real Texan Say
Our goal for 2010 is more brightwork/maintence/upgrades for “the old Rose.” She’s a good old boat and had waited patiently for our return this year. It was time for some sprucing up.
We arrived at the Shelter Bay Marina January 12, 2010 and the days seemed to drag as we lived “on the hard” in the marina’s workyard. Until, that is, I looked at the calendar. “My gosh it’s February!” I exclaimed. I thought we would be making plans to leave Shelter Bay by the end of January but our cruising plans had been moved down on the list as our boat repairs and maintenance took priority. We weren’t even in the water yet!
Living on the hard has the advantage of electricity every day and water when you need it, but that’s about it. Joe made dozens of trips up and down the tall ladder that leaned against our propped-up-and-in-the-air boat. He was usually hauling supplies, water, and our pee bucket, which he emptied into the marina toilets daily. No matter what I thought I had to complain about, at least I didn’t have to haul the Pee Bucket.
Meanwhile, a group of cruisers who were sailing around the world – 30 boats – made it to the popular marina almost at the same time and we were flooded with excited European and U.S. couples, mostly young and often with their children. In fact, one couple’s daughter had been born in Honduras on their circumnavigation! The babies and the toddlers were cute as could be and became fixtures at the Shelter Bay pool, where their pale skin and curly blonde hair contrasted sharply with the dark, tanned skins of the boaters. There were more girls than boys, but one day I saw a 5-year-old boy spinning in the lobby and literally bouncing off the walls and I smiled. All those sweet little girls were precious, but it was good to see a boy doing the things boys do.
We met a cruising couple from Texas who had also brought their children – teenagers – with them for their passage through the Panama Canal. Tad and Karen Smalley live in Austin, Texas, and bought their boat sight unseen in 2008. Tad had a lot of experience sailing on Lake Travis in a 22' Pearson Electra, but like many of us, he caught the cruising bug and wanted to have an adventure. Transiting the Panama Canal qualifies!
Tad and Karen have been married 18 years, and “I always wanted a boat,” said Tad. “I wanted a boat even before I wanted to marry Karen.” S/V Ragtag Circus (named after Tad’s father’s military company’s famous WWII maneuver) is a 1976 Westsail 43. They named the boat’s tender “Sideshow.” When I read about the Ragtag Circus, I realized how respectable the name is for the Smalleys’ boat!
After receiving orders in late March 1945 to turn east from Germany's Ruhr River and race toward Berlin, the (83rd) Division commandeered anything on wheels (and sometimes hooves) from the surrounding German countryside and made an incredible dash across northern Germany. In a span of only 13 days, the “Thunderbolts” fought their way across 280 miles of northern Germany as unit after unit within the 83rd leap-frogged and flanked one another to continuously press the attack east, outracing armored units to the Elbe River. There, the Division fought their way across the Elbe on April 13, 1945 -- the sole Allied crossing into the Eastern European theater -- and to within 40 miles of Berlin. . . . the "Rag Tag Circus" was labeled by Army Lt. General Raymond S. McLain in a recommendation for the Presidential Unit Citation as an "advance ... the speed of which has seldom, if ever, been equaled." Read story of the Rag Tag Circus.
“The name definitely fits the boat,” laughed Tad. “It takes a little bit of everything to make her work.” Ragtag was located in Long Beach, California and Tad flew there to make preparations to sail the boat from California to Texas. His first night in Long Beach, he slept aboard his boat and his last thought, as he dozed off in his bunk was, “Oh, my gosh, WHAT have I done?” The 43-foot vessel’s size was overwhelming, and it took Tad over two months to figure out what the boat needed to become a cruising vessel. He and a friend tried to set sail southbound, but two days into Mexican waters, they discovered the new-looking batteries were dead. Upon closer examination, they realized the batteries were 11 years old, so back to California they went for replacements, this time to Moss Harbor.
They picked up another crewmember and were once again underway. Tad and his friends encountered difficulty at Point Concepción, California. It is there where two currents meet; between fighting the current and a problematic wind situation, they lost a sail, “A really, really good sail,” Tad mourned.
When things calmed down, they replaced the sail and checked into Mexico at Ensenada, where “the port captain didn’t like me,” said Tad. “I don’t know why, but he insisted there were 4 days missing; four days we couldn’t account for.” They were finally allowed to check-into Mexico, where Tad was in fisherman’s paradise. He juryrigged 6 hooks on one line and actually caught 5 fish at the same time! They were sardines, about a foot long apiece and he marinated them in Italian salad dressing and grilled them. What a feast!
Their only encounter with would-be pirates took place in Mexican waters, and he still isn’t sure if they were “pirates.” Men in a boat approached Ragtag; their faces were covered. “Maybe their faces were covered because of the sun,” mused Tad. At any rate, they took one look a Tad (a large man) and his two-man crew and turned around.
Their passage took them past Guatemala without stopping (“Too expensive to check-in,” Tad said), then into Barillas, El Salvador. “That was an incredible little stop, up a river,” said Tad. “They sent a panga to escort us up the river to a nice yacht club and hotel.” He said the workers there are very proud of their fuel; they put some in a clear glass and held it up for Tad’s inspection. “El Salvador fuel!” they declared. Following a brief stop in Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua, Tad and his family were reunited in Costa Rica for Christmas 2009, which they spent at Papagayo, a luxury marina and Four Seasons Resort.
It was a lifetime experience for the family teens.
The passage was difficult, with waves slamming into the hull head-on. “Then we got to Punta Malo,” said Tad, “And it got worse.
“Panama is an s-shaped country,” continued Tad. “The Panama Canal runs north and south. Once you get your head around that, you understand travel direction.” New Year’s Day dinner was fresh Mahi Mahi, captain Tad’s “Catch of the Day.”
“They would only let me catch one fish per day,” he complained of his mutinous crew. “I was ready to stock the freezer full of fish.”
An agent, Stanley Scott, assisted with arrangements for their Panama Canal transit and they were provided with tires to hang all around the outside of the boat. The black rubber doughnuts were tires in name only. “They were very thin,” Tad said. They paid $70 for the 8 tires and four 125' lines. The passage through the canal took two days and they were supposed to be traveling at 8 knots. “But we weren’t,” said Tad. “I don’t think anyone does.”
Despite their willingness to be school drop-outs and full-time sailors, The Smalley kids returned to school in Austin and Tad sailed on to Bocas Del Toro. Like many cruisers, he has a long-term plan – getting the boat to Texas – but is taking it one passage at a time.
I enjoyed hearing about Ragtag Circus and the Smalleys’ adventure because I was beginning to forget what it feels like to have a boat in the water. Joe was beginning to forget what leisure time was.
He had purchased the Standby Horizon CPF-18i, a system that supports GPS, chartplotter and depth finder. It also has the capability for Automatic Identification of Ships, so he bought a new AIS receiver too. I didn’t understand why we needed to be able to identify the tankers, and he said, “Well . . . you could talk to them.” I can’t imagine what I’d want to say to a big tanker other than “Please don’t hit me.”
It has a 20-mile range, 5″ screen, and what I will definitely use is the graph that will tell me what direction another ship is traveling. On night passages, I spend a lot of time nervously staring at the radar screen, trying to figure out which way a vessel is going and how fast. The new system should help.
The AIS receiver needed an antenna, and because our VHF radio antenna is on the mast, Joe figured that an antenna splitter would be the way to go. So he spent one day installing the antenna splitter.
Following our bottom job, Joe installed two zincs, one on the shaft and one under the stern. He said the zinc under the stern was hooked on with a couple of bolts and all metal parts were wired from the engine and thru hulls to this zinc, making it the sacrificial anode. “Everyone has a different opinion,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of luck doing it this way, so no reason to do it differently.”
He bought a new transducer as part of the new chart plotter/depth finder system. The old transducer had a counterbored 2″ hole and the new one is 2″ in total diameter; he had to drill out the counterbored part of the hull so he could fit the new transducer. The marina carpenter made a fairing block out of teak. Joe epoxied it to the hull, and once attached, it was painted with epoxy paint to seal the wood. When everything was dry, the transducer was re-inserted with 5200 sealant and tightened.
We spent one day polishing the stainless steel support frames for the dodger and bimini, eliminating patches of rust. We spent another day scrubbing the boat’s dusty exterior. Joe spent two days waxing the faded blue strip on the hull near the rub rails. I decided I wanted the blue stripe repainted. “We can’t afford it,” Joe said.
“We can’t afford any of this, but it isn’t stopping us,” I replied.
He replaced the cutlass bearing. I asked him why and he said, “Because the old one was worn out.” I still worry that Joe will not respect my “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy.
The ball valve that allows cooling water to get into the engine was broken and the valve was half-open, so it would not allow enough water in. I’m so glad he doesn’t tell me this stuff when it’s happening, because I’d worry myself crazy! It sounds to me like we were lucky we made it to the marina, any marina, before we exploded or sank.
His list of to-dos was long, and he planned to effect more repairs at the dock. He needed to work on the engine, the generator, and build the watermaker. The exterior wood needed cetol. I wanted the entire teak flooring in the main salon cleaned and lacquered.
I figured we were in real trouble when I saw him rummaging through some cabinets, pulling out boxes and bags and examining them. “Where’s the duct tape?” he asked.
“I don’t know if we have any,” I replied nervously. “Why do you need it?”
“Gotta fix something,” he said.
Don’t ask, don’t tell is not necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t ask.
When we first bought our boat, a stanchion broke and Joe discovered it had been broken before and repaired with a toothbrush and duct tape. At the time, he thought it was shoddy workmanship but now he realizes the genius of the job. If duct tape won’t fix it, it isn’t fixable.
Meanwhile, the propeller repair was not going well. The blades were chipped and eroded from electrolysis; Cristobal Marine Repair has a shop near Shelter Bay Marina and also on the Pacific side of Panama. They said they could fix it because propeller repair is something they do. Then, they said the propeller was too far gone to repair. The next day, they said they were treating it with muratic acid. The following day, they refused to take Joe’s calls. On day thirteen of living on the hard, they called and said another guy would come into the shop, look at it and “give it a try.” This was sounding like a major medical problem.
“When did we start having propeller problems?” I asked. “We were motoring all over the San Blas before we left.”
“Well, we had a diver clean it before we left Bocas,” Joe replied, “But it hasn’t worked well for awhile.”
Another thing I was probably better off not knowing.
“If they can’t fix it, we’ll put it back on and order a new one.” Then he said the magic words: “We can have the new one installed when we’re in the water. We won’t have to wait to drop back in.”
Shelter Bay’s workyard manager, Dave visited our neighborhood (where other boats were appearing, getting their work finished and leaving daily while we waved hello and goodbye). Dave said he might put a fence around our boat and call it a condo. He then placed a call to Cristobal Marine Repair and it sounded as if angry words were exchanged regarding Rose of Sharon’s propeller. I edged away from the vehement workyard man and waved my camera at him, telling him I was going to take some marina shots. “Use a Howitzer,” he replied in his wonderfully crisp English.
Shelter Bay Marina is putting in new docks as fast as they can because this place is full to overflowing most of the time. Joe and I walked out of the workyard, past the boats on the hard in the storage area, and visited where the new docks are being installed. It’s an expensive marina compared to most, but it can be because it’s the only full-service marina in these parts and the last stop – or the first stop – for almost every small boat transiting the Panama Canal. Canal agents conduct their business in the marina restaurant with excited clients, eager for departure. It’s not unusual to hear a champagne cork pop as recent arrivals toast their achievement.
Our propeller was finally shipped by bus, unrepaired, from Panama City to Colón’s bus station and Joe went to pick it up. Downtown Colón is dangerous. Every western Caribbean cruiser knows this and we had avoided the city as much as possible. On the day Joe left to pick up the propeller, I discovered he’d left his passport copy and the pepper spray in the boat. I spent a lot of time anxiously searching the parking lot for the marina shuttle to return. It did and he did, safely. A few days later, I wanted to go to the post office to mail some postcards to our grandchildren. Our driver took us to a very bad part of town – and bad by Central American standards means really, really BAD. When he dropped us off, he said, “Don’t walk this way,” and pointed to one side of the street. “Walk to that corner and take the first taxi you see. Don’t walk any further than that corner.” In downtown Colón, thieves are quite open about snatching bags or pointing a knife at you, in the daylight, on the sidewalk. I always make fun of Joe and call him my “nervous white guy,” but in Colón, Panama, you cannot be too cautious.
The day after Joe remounted the propeller, we were dropped in the water. How they found us a slip in the anchor-room-only marina is anyone’s guess. The daily shuffle of boats in and boats out of this marina is mind-boggling. I told the office manager we’d be in the slip about two weeks, but I knew it’d be closer to 4 weeks.
Due to overcrowding, the laundry room and the marina’s free shuttle service became almost unmanageable. Competition for washers was fierce. The marina’s rule of not hanging laundry on boats was disregarded because the dryers were running day and night. The marina rule of two persons per boat on the shuttle to town was usually not enforced, but became necessary quickly. Then the rule was one person per boat. Joe went without me one day and said he thought the office manager was going to be attacked by unruly cruisers when he tried to solve the overcrowding situation. Finally the office manager threw up his hands and said, “No one can stand on the bus. That’s the law.”
“What happened?” I asked Joe.
“Well, it kind of sorted itself out,” he replied. “People shuffled, some got off, and when everyone was seated somewhere – even on the floor – we left.”
I found myself stalling our weekly shopping trip until our supplies were exhausted, and when we did go to town, our load – one 5-gallon jug of bottled water and two duffel bags full of groceries – stretched the limits of space on the shuttle bus even more. One day I grabbed three British cruisers behind us in the checkout line and asked the manager of Rey’s Supermarket if their courtesy van was available. It was, and we were whisked back to the marina with no stress. This seemed like a viable, if though unreliable option and I planned to ask for the store’s courtesy shuttle every week.
“I thought you had to spend a lot of money – like $300,” said one cruiser.
“Well, the four of us combined spent well over $300,” I replied. “The store knows that, and if the van’s available, they’ll let us use it.”
Even though he was working on something every day, I became antsy to leave the marina and finally persuaded Joe to work on an agenda – my agenda – for prioritization of tasks. “We need to get the watermaker installed first,” I said. “Then we need to go to Panama City and buy that generator at PriceSmart.”
PriceSmart is like a Sam’s Club or a Walmart and we thought they might have a generator that might work. I’d asked the marina’s office manager, Gabriel, to call the store and ask about a certain brand of generator. “We’d like one for about a thousand dollars,” I said. It took him several tries to get through and when he did, he translated with surprise.
“It’s four-hundred dollars, not a thousand.” The brand was different, but when we looked it up on the internet, Joe said it was not a bad option.
“Except it weighs over 150 pounds,” he said. “That’s pretty heavy for a ‘portable’ generator.” Thus began an argument about the generator that led to his working on the boat generator that led to me prioritizing his work assignment so we could get out of the marina and back to cruising.
The list read: 1) Install watermaker, 2) Buy generator, 3) Cetol exterior toe rails, 4) Clean and varnish interior floors, 5) Test Single Sideband and Winlink email, 6) Fix leak in dinghy, 7) LEAVE DOCK, 8) Replace radio/CD player, 9) Install new speakers, 10) Fix leak in drinking water plumbing, 11) Fix leak at galley sink edge.
Our next shopping excursion to Novey’s hardware store, I bought more duct tape. Or maybe, while we are stuck in the marina, I should call it “dock tape.”