Thursday, May 31, 2012

Achieving Escape Velocity

We did it! We left civilization behind! Yesterday we chugged out of Panama City and made our way to the Perlas. Here we sit, at anchor at the mouth of the Rio Calcique, the only boat in sight.

Which begs a question - where is everybody? The Caribbean was packed full of people. In some anchorages in the San Blas islands, we were jammed in with fifty or sixty boats. Cartagena and Panama City were no different. The Perlas are both beautiful - imagine a rugged, rocky landscape like Georgian Bay, with long, sandy beaches - and very close to the mainland (the northern islands are less than 40 nm from Panama City). Why isn´t this place overrun? Not that I am complaining; we have certainly earned the peace.

Some people don´t like leaving the city, and I can understand that. You never have to plan ahead in the in city; it is a fly-by-whim type of place. Oh, I forgot to buy yoghurt. I´ll walk 100 m to the convenience store. Oh, I feel like going out tonight. Should be see a movie, or hear music, or go to the theatre, or the opera, or or or... It is easy. Options galore! And when we find ourselves city-proximate, we take advantage of those things, too. We took the girls to a children´s play last week. In Cartagena, I wandered over to the grocery store almost every day to get ice and drinks for our painters. The girls and I hiked over the bridge to the (free) gold museum pretty often. It was fun.

But leaving Panama City was a different thing. That´s it for cities until November. So we had to suck the marrow out of this city before we left, and I mean that solely in terms of supplying the wagons, as it were. Every time we set foot in a store, we had to remind ourselves things like,¨"I won´t be able to buy cheese again. How much cheese can I reasonably fit in the freezer?" Erik prowled the aisles in the hardware tiendas, picking up plumbing parts and various nuts and bolts and asking himself what was going to break during the next six months, and could he fix it with what he had? It´s all about planning and forethought, and it is easy to put off departure just one more day to pick up such-and-such or more of this-and-that. And I know full well I´ll run out of some things early and be mad at myself, and other things not at all and wonder why I bought so much, but that is the way the cookie crumbles. Maybe we´ll have to live on peanut butter and tuna fish for a while. (Preferably not mixed.) I can handle it.

For us, the boat is much more fun when we can swim and explore, so we had a strong pull to finish up and get out. The girls were going mad, we are sailing late in the season in an El Niño year (which means weak winds for our Pacific crossing), so we needed to move. We wanted to move. And the appeal of just one more bag of whole wheat flour eventually wasn´t enough to keep us there. And now we´re free.

We´ll catch our breath for a few days, explore the river, then press on to the Galapagos. That will be a long passage - likely 10 days or so - with no wind, because that is how the equator rolls. But we´ll make it. And I´ll try to send these shortwave radio updates as I can.

As an administrative point, we won´t have much in the way of bandwidth for the forseeable future. Please do continue to write to us - we love it! We can´t talk to just each other forever, you know! But keep it text-only, if you please. No attachments, or our SSB-email program will ruthlessly delete your note. I know, it is tough out at sea.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Getting clean

With all of the excitement of Canal transits and missing toilets and new antifouling paint and and and, I have failed to mention a very exciting development aboard Papillon.

We bought a washing machine!

I know!  I’m dancing in a circle, too!  Because what have I been complaining about since the Earth began cooling?  Yes, the very smelly state of our wardrobe.  Having to haul bags of said stinkage to shore, wash them in machines of dubious quality, dry them (if we´re lucky), and try to get everything back aboard in a still-clean-and-dry state.  It was a thorn in my side.

But laundry needs water.  And, funny enough, water is in short supply on a boat.  So, no washing machine.

Enter our days on the hard.

Cruisers love to sell things to other cruisers.  Life is a perpetual garage sale out here on the water.  Everywhere we go, we participate the local morning VHF net.  It lets people share information, contact each other – all of those regular things we all do every day.  And everywhere we have been, there is a category called, “Treasures of the Bilge.”  Sometimes people hawk their old Corningware for weeks on end.  Sometimes they offer up a 12 volt windlass (to raise the anchor), and it is gone within milliseconds.  We got rid of our surplus blueboard from the fridge project in this fashion.  It is a good system if you don´t abuse it.  By which I mean, if you can keep your spouse from going bananas.

The marina version of this is the bulletin board.  And boy, did Erik love walking by that bulletin board.  “Amy, I bought a new outboard!  It has a service manual and a full set of spares!”, “Amy!  Our neighbor has these great solar panels!” and one day, “Amy, there is an awesome watermaker posted!  We´ll sell our old one – it will be practically free!”

I opened my mouth to say, “Our watermaker is fine.  Low volume, but fine.  We don´t need a new one.”  But Erik continued: “It does 17 gallons per hour.  We could buy a washing machine.”

The words died in my throat.  A few weeks before, we had witnessed the laundry bliss of friends from Quebec, who had squeezed a cheapo machine into a locker.  For $150, they had clean sheets.  Clean.  SHEETS.  Whenever they wanted!  I coveted that flimsy plastic thing.

So instead I agreed.  And Erik bought the watermaker.  And we sold ours.  And we began the drama of getting new reverse osmosis membranes for the darn thing, a saga that is still continuing.  And in the meantime, Erik borrowed a car and went to pick up a washing machine.

And it was so pretty.  So little and pretty.  And light!  30 kg, compared to the 95 kg of our Miele.  We hoisted it on deck while we were still on the hard, and there it sat, wrapped in plastic, smugly promising me washing delights to come.

I cleared out the designated locker, and Erik measured it one last time.

Let me just build a shelf for this thing, and we´ll be all set.
We lowered it gently through the forward hatch.  And I was as careful as I could be except for my foot.  My right leg went through the hatch, and the back of my thigh came down hard on the hatch frame.  I sported a purple bruise about six inches per side for weeks.  Once Erik was done yelling at me for endangering the precious washing machine (and where is the love, I ask you?), we got it the rest of the way inside.

Only to discover that the locker opening was half a centimeter too narrow.

“No problem,” said Erik.  “I though that was likely the case.”  And he set about gently knocking out the inner teak trim from the doorway.

We squeaked that machine in by millimeters.



Got it!
I read the instruction manual, learning the joys of such interesting settings as “Fuzzy” and “Jean”.  And so, just as I have never had a job without a work visa for a foreign country, I have never had a washing machine with an English display.

Meh.  It can´t be too hard to figure out.
Once it was piped in, there was nothing to do but try it out.  By now, Papillon was back in the water, so we had somewhere for the waste water to go.  We decided to discharge into our main bilge to give that oily place a little freshening up.

We loaded the machine.  It began to fill.  And gently whirr.  And drain.  And fill again.  And drain again.  And fill again.

By now, Erik and I were looking at each other with some concern.  That was a lot of water.  The machine had seven water levels, and we had chosen number five.  Clearly a mistake.

And, sure enough, we ran the tank dry.  We scrambled to pause the machine, switch tanks, bleed the air out of the system and restart before the washer gave up.  And we made it, but barely.

We have had a couple of practice loads since then, but I won´t be all high and mighty about my clean clothes until the watermaker is fully operational.  And water level two appears to be the edge of my comfort zone.  I check the machine anxiously as it runs, and keep an ear out for the telltale pump complaint that tells me a tank has gone dry.
Watching, watching..
I´ve heard this crazy rumour that, on land, water comes to your house through a pipe, and you don´t even have to do anything but pay for it!  Fairytales, fairytales…

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mother´s Day

Sunday was Mother’s Day.  We aren´t very good with holidays that don´t fall on the same date every year, so we discovered this by accident.  My mom casually mentioned it the day before; we promptly forgot.  Then we learned this fact again when we called Erik’s mom on Sunday.  (Nice save, Papillon!)  And, as I am also a mother (insert joke here), my family quickly rallied around me, made me delicious food, showered me with gifts, and otherwise spoiled me for the whole day.

Don’t be ridiculous.  Here on Papillon, we have Jobs To Do.  There is no time for coddling.  So Stylish made me a lovely book about our family, I got innumerable hugs and kisses from the girls, and I managed to carve out twenty minutes in the morning to read my book and eat corn chips and salsa.  And, as is traditional on Mother’s Day, we had an outing.  Not a go-for-a-picnic outing.  An oh-my-god-we-aren’t-going-to-see-a-store-for-six-months-what-do-we-still-need outing.  Which meant a trip to my least favorite place.

The mall.

I hate shopping.  It is boring, I’m bad at it, and spending money in an overly air-conditioned space with hundreds of other people makes me cranky.  If it isn’t a bookstore, I’m not interested, and even then I’d rather have Amazon deliver things to my house.  In fact, if I could get everything delivered – food, clothing, everything – I would. If I didn’t have to pick it out myself, that would be even better, but I think I would have to be a little further along the wealth curve to manage that.

Job one: a new computer.  I haven’t posted lately just because of the extra-poor internet here.  It is mainly because our Lenovo developed a fan error and decided not to boot any more.  As it turns out, this is a common ThinkPad problem.  At home, I would have taken the computer to be repaired, grouched at the three days it was gone, then taken my newly-repaired machine home, happy with the world.  Here, we fixed it ourselves as many times as we could, then Erik went to twenty-five computer shops and repair guys, only to find that Lenovo does not have a presence Panama.  So, no replacement fan.  Cue a cry for help to my dad and one of my brothers… because, of course, the fan-selling people want a credit card with a US billing address.  Ugh.  But a new fan is now winging its way to our shipping agent in Florida, who will get it to us a week from Wednesday as long as it arrives on their premises by this Wednesday.  And then we can install it ourselves.  Sadly, we now know the inside of the Lenovo pretty well, so we can do it.  Self reliance, people!

But if we are getting a new fan, why the new computer?  Plan B, friends, plan B.  Because do we all trust that the fan problem will forever and always be solved?  We do not.  Assuming we fix the Lenovo, the new Acer will be strictly for our navigation software.   Because not having to navigate the Pacific solely via paper charts and a sextant would be a plus, I think.

The most interesting part of buying the computer came after purchase.  We tried to leave the store, but were instead directed up the back stairs into a windowless room.  Apparently, one must endure a quality check before leaving.  So we waited and waited, then a young associated opened up the computer, turned it on, and made sure it booted.  He seemed a little bemused when we proceeded to try the speakers and the optical drive – I mean, we had the thing on anyway.  Why not check it thoroughly?  All was in place.  Now I just need to get used to this Spanish-style keyboard, which is almost but not exactly like the English model.  The question mark is in the wrong place, CTRL-A saves your document and I have to press the ALT GR key, whatever that is, to find @.  The hardships of life.

Okay, computer – check.  Next, walkie-talkies.  One of the key requirements to enjoying coral reef-infested Pacific islands is not running aground on said reefs.  So we are going to make some rat lines, and yours truly is going to have to climb up to and sit on the spreaders when we navigate in and out of these places.  (And yes, I’ll wear a harness and be very safe, I promise.)  Since my hearing is middling-to-poor, I get to send instructions via walkie-talkie.  I am already having cold sweats about leading us into a blind alley, the coral reaching out and punching holes in our hull, the zooxanthellae swarming Papillon and dragging us down to a watery grave.  Shiver. 

Clothes.  My dear spouse, whom I found wedged in a tiny closet yesterday as he tried to fish wires for the new solar panels, has achieved catastrophic failure on all of his work shorts and most of his shirts.  He was positively indecent.  We found a department store, I left him in the men’s section, and the girls and I went to find them new bathing suits.

Good points of Panamanian department stores: very cheap (clothes <$5 often), very big.  Bad point: totally disorganized.  Anything related to men or boys was fine, in that it was confined to a single geographic location.  Sure, racks were set out randomly: shirts here, shorts there, some socks, then more shirts.  But there was only one place to look.

Not so for girls and women.  Their clothing was sprinkled throughout the three levels of the store.  The only well-organized section was ladies’ intimates, and it was so big I nearly got lost.  I’ve never seen so many fancy-patterned underpants.  It took half an hour to locate the women’s bathing suits, and I never did find the girls’.  Very frustrating.

We stayed long enough at the mall, gathering flip-flops and other essentials, that we decided to eat.  Little did we realize that a full-blown Disney show was going on.  Aladdin, a generic prince and all of the princesses sang and danced, and cavorted about a stage in the middle of the food court.  Lights flashed, music boomed, and the crowd munched through their McDonald’s and KFC as Ariel shimmied in her shiny mermaid-tail spandex pants.  American culture at work.

Thoroughly exhausted, we stumbled home with our bags of New Stuff and fell into bed.  I know I have to go back for a last grocery run, and I never did find bathing suits for the girls, but I sincerely hope that is it.  When one of you creates an everything-you-need delivery system with minimal user involvement, you be sure to let me know.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Canal win!

The canal was a hoot!  We had a great time.  I'm glad to hear that many of you were able to watch us in real time.  My dad, as promised took many, many pictures, and has sent me a few to share with you.  I also took many, many pictures, but was still able to do my job as a linehandler.  And that, my friends, is multitasking.

Waiting for your canal date is a lot like waiting for Christmas when you are six years old.  Time moves unendurably slowly, and at some point you are convinced the big day is never going to arrive.  And then it does.  And then you are so excited and jumpy and full of sugar that you can hardly focus long enough to enjoy the experience.  But, since I'm a grown-up and all mature and stuff, I was able to calmly record my observations.  When I wasn't busy being excited and jumpy and full of sugar.

The day before, I cooked from lunch until midnight.  That is because we would have an extra five people aboard - an advisor, two linehandlers (friends of ours), and their two kids, ages 11 and 13.  I also knew there would be no time to cook anything complicated during the two-day transit, as I would be busy helping ensure our boat didn't crash into the walls of the locks.  Because crashing is bad seamanship, my friends.  Also, a quick path to divorce.

Anyway.  I made pancakes, chicken-lemon-feta pasta, Caesar salad, garlic bread, two chocolate cakes, and four pizzas ahead.  We did scrambled eggs in the morning, because they are quick, and I made a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread in the breadmaker, ready just as everyone awoke.  Mmm.  I'm not a great chef, but when I stick to my classics, everyone seems satisfied.

But what about the canal itself?  What happens is, during that interminable waiting time, your boat gets measured and you give many, many dollars to the canal authorities.  They decide how best to fit you in with other boats.  Then, on the day, you go to a staging area called The Flats at the time they tell you, and you wait.  Your advisor shows up.  And, surprise!  He has an apprentice with him.  You are glad you made so much food.  Then, the fun begins.

There was a freighter named Baltic Star in the lock with us.

Passing by to reach the first lock.

Please, let there be room for both of us.
We were rafted together with two other boats, a catamaran and another monohull.  The cat was in charge of driving, and we on either side were in charge of staying appropriately tied to the lock walls.

How it works is this.  Once you enter the first lock, a canal linehandler throws you a monkey's fist.  (No, not literally.  Gross.  It means a line with a big knot tied on the end.)  You tie this through the large bowline on the end of the line you have prepared on board, and he hauls your line up.  When you get to your designated spot, he throws your bowline over a bollard, and volia.  You are lied to the lock wall.  You tighten your line, cleat it off, the doors close and things get started.

Goodbye, Colon.

Too late to change your mind now.
As the water rushes into the lock, you need to keep taking up the slack on your line.  Only not too much, or your boat will get pulled into the wall.  Your counterpart, the linehandler on the wall, will give you helpful signals to guide you.  Unfortunately, all signals look like "talk to the hand" to my eyes.  Take up slack, don't take up any more, cleat that off, keep going - everything earned a raised hand.  The advisor beside me translated these gestures for me, and seemed genuinely puzzled that I didn't naturally understand what the man wanted.

They understood as much as I did.
On it went through three locks.  When we reached Gatun lake, we cut loose from the other two boats, and found a mooring for the night.

Early the next day, we were up for round two.  We had a long motor through Gatun lake to reach the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side.  It was very pretty country; it looked very much like Cootes Paradise (the tip of Lake Ontario), but with more palm trees.
This all seems so familiar...
The Miraflores locks were the same, but in reverse.  Gently letting the line out to keep a little, but not too much, tension, and again, to keep from banging into the walls.  We were rafted to just the catamaran on this leg.  My dad took these screen captures:

And my Uncle Tom sent me this:

And people claim technology never did anything good.

Before we knew it, we were there.  The Pacific!

Holy bananas, it's a whole new ocean.
We granted ourselves a day of rest, and now we are back in job mode.  After a last flurry of buying food and boat parts and whatever else we won't see again until New Zealand, we'll head for the Perlas.

But first, we get to do the canal again, this time as linehandlers for our friends.  Wish us luck on Round 2.