Life Aboard LULU

January 23, 2004 (The "Sailing" Life)
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Many readers have emailed, asking why I haven’t written, wondering if we’d disappeared into some Caribbean Triangle. We did sink into a morass of sorts described in this, well, let’s call it a BACKdate.

Update 46, The “Sailing” Life

Back in another millennium, in 1997, when we began looking for a sailboat, we noted variations of the following ad in boating magazines: MY DREAM, 65-foot Camper-Nicholson, two-years-old, recently sailed out of Rybovitch after complete refit: new sails, paint, canvas; brand new B&G electronics, new watermaker, generator overhauled, motor rebuilt.  Anything not refit had been “upgraded continuously.”

Definitely not OUR dream.

Mystifying. Our considerable experience with antique cars told us such back-to-brand-spanking-new restorations are generally unnecessary for 25 years. At 22, the GRANFALLOON had required major repair only when we bunked into immovable, submerged objects or treated her diesel innards to salt water floods.

“What kind of crap is this?” we asked Jackie and Mel. “How can you be full-time cruisers if your boats need overhauling every two years?”

Maybe not every two years, they suggested, but the rule of thumb is to figure 10% of the boats value annually for maintenance. 

”Absurd!” we insisted. So that means if you spend $500,000 on a boat, you need to pour $50,000 into it every year? We were, at that point, way beyond the $500,000 threshold.

Despite Jackie’s impressive professional math credentials, we questioned the numbers, and so turned to our other expert, Broker Bruce—who disagreed. Buy a higher quality boat, with better systems, he said, and the rule won’t hold. Note—which we failed to—he didn’t say there was no rule.

LULU cooperated. We stood by Jackie and Mel, in marina after marina, through a shocking number of minor and major boat problemsrefrigeration, repaints, wiring, generatorall the while congratulating ourselves on having bought a one-year-old with what seemed a good disposition. FEISTY was, after all, 15-years-old when we sailed out of New Rochelle.

But now that LULU is five, she too is becoming an elderly lady. She has turned cantankerous…

We’ve discovered the fallacy of our antique car/boat analogy: cruising is roughly equivalent to driving your Rolls Royce into Long Island Sound and then expecting mechanical meticulousness.

These last months we’ve learned who rules here. And come to understand why cruisers say all their plans are cast in jello…

On May 18, after our long bureaucratically driven confinement, we left Cartagena, powered by the newly installed battery charger, raring to resume our cruising lifestyle and expecting an exotic summer amid primitive people and desolate islands.

It was not to be.

The plan began crumbling immediately, during the 36 hour, 190-mile passage, to the San Blas Islands. We expected prevailing westerlies and a tranquil downwind passage. Instead we had virtually no wind at all. Whatever wind we got was hard on our nose—an impossible point of sail.

At the same time, we couldn’t tell where the wind was because LULU’s wind direction indicator stopped working. Had we had wind, we wouldn't be able to figure out its velocity, because our wind-speed indicator also conked out.

We "sailed" alongside FEISTY. For the first eight hours Mel had a problem with his stuffing box, which was overstuffed—meaning no trickle of water was seeping through the packing that keeps the propeller shaft cooled and slippery. The engine overheated whenever it ran, which, sailing being impossible, was necessarily all the time. That meant FEISTY had to keep stopping to cool down. In the dead-calm conditions, she was prey to waves buffeting the hull.

So as not to get ahead of them, we needed to run our engine at no-RPMs, similarly submitting to the rolly seas. The reason not to get ahead of them (aside from safety) was that our SSB (short wave) radio suddenly refused to transmit—meaning we had no communication with the cruising world at large.

Eventually Mel fluffed up—that is, aerated—the stuffing in the box and we moved into a glorious night—with billions and billions of stars overhead, with strobes of lightning flashing ever more frequently, illuminating the empty seas in every direction. We sat alone in our watery amphitheater gazing at faraway bolts, waiting for the rest of the show to begin. Eventually it did—the heavens opened up, thoroughly drenching us, even under our cockpit canopies—at four-years old, they’re so worn a plate of cappellini could slide through the various holes, tears, gaps and seam openings.

Little did we know this lightning show was a bit of foreshadowing.

San Blahs

We arrived smack in middle of nowhere—the San Blas Islands—a nowhere as close to faraway Polynesian paradises as is possible in this hemisphere.

Lulu In The San Blas Geologically, the San Blas archipelago is an irregular submerged reef about 50 miles long, running some five miles off the coast of Panama and, for the most part, below the water’s surface.  Every now and again a tiny puff of land, palmy and pretty, looms out of the intense aqua. The San Blas boast more than 360 of these mostly deserted islets.

Lulu In San Blas

Scattered among some are small outposts of Kuna Indians living, as they have for centuries, in thatched-roof huts and lean-tos. Kuna families are assigned, generally for a year or two of service, by their tribal chiefs to watch over their ancestral “lands.”

The Indians are peaceable, very small and very smiley despite many missing teeth. Poverty and malnutrition are endemic; the islands yield them little but coconuts and fish.

Living tribally, the Indians have no qualms about asking you for anything—from a bag of sugar to a Coke to a T-shirt, to "Can you fix my outboard motor?" Unlike the “boat boys” of the Eastern Caribbean, they take "No" as easily as "Yes"—assuming if you're not forthcoming, you just don't have it or can't do it.

But the Kunas are not entirely without resources. They’ve carved out a unique entrepreneurial niche: hand-stitching multiple layers of bright fabrics into intricate, reverse-appliqué panels called "molas,” representations of fanciful primitive animals, local gods and goddesses, puberty rituals and tribal history. One of these placemat-sized designs can take a month or more to make. In the islands, they sell for anywhere between $3 and $40, but back in the States, dealers sell them for up to hundreds

Mola of the Male fertility Rite

Barely had our anchor set when, from both shores, we heard the sound of splashing oars and groaning wooden canoes.

First to come, borne by his brother and cousin, was Venancio, a slim, effeminate man with talon nails—you wonder how he can stitch at all. Venancio, a mover and shaker, even has a multi-colored business card proclaiming him a Master Mola Maker.

Venancio is followed within an hour by his—er, stiffest—competitor: the scarlet-nailed, long-skirted Lisa Harris, her black hair curling under in a vintage 1950s page boy.  Boy being the operative word—because Lisa is a transvestite, a deception that’s hard to spot without the advance cruiser warning. This sex ambiguity is forgotten within minutes, as you sit with him/her viewing intricate molas, yakking over stitchery techniques and learning Kuna mythology. Venancio and Lisa aside, for the most part, women make the molas.

Kuna women, like their molas, pulsate with color. Despite scorching heat, the Kuna female ties, binds, winds and knots herself from neck to ankles in a tumultuous stew of beads, string and bolts of vibrant fabrics.

The traditional costume is one or two layers of skirts, topped by a short shirt, connected by yards of scarf wound round their midriffs. The headpiece is a crosspollination of a babushka and a beret. In a further accessory burst, the women are striped from wrist to elbow and from knee to ankle in rows of multicolored, handmade bangles, some woven of yarn, some beaded. They mix patterns and prints, from merely vivid to downright gaudy with an audacity that seems to come from a combination of tradition and a genuine sense of style.

Whether it’s the bargain instinct or the indigenous craft angle, most cruisers lose all sense of proportion around molas, buying obsessively, amassing collections, boasting about bargains, turning them into placemats, handbags, coasters, toaster-, computer-, even toilet-seat covers. Sometimes cruisers hold impromptu, multi-boat mola viewings. One group of friends, atoning for their wildest excesses, held an “Ugly Mola Contest.”

We broke up the mola presentation by passing out candy bars and Cartagena T-shirts to the children. Cruisers also hand out assorted staples-—canned goods, sugar and powdered milk. And luxuries—like the 24 pair of reading glasses we’d bought for the women whose eyes are weakenend fusing fabrics with millions of invisible stitches. No one is exactly sure whether we cruisers are, in fact, weakening the historically self-reliant Kuna culture or helping to alleviate the universal deprivation.

Kunas are also what passes for San Blas grocery stores. Two or three times a day ulus arrive offering fish, crabs, lobsters, the odd vegetable, tiny loaves of dense, homemade bread.

Planning for Daitch deprivation, Gary and I had shopped like mad in Cartagena, stockpiling 12 cases of wine; 90 eggs; a half-bushel of onions; as many cans of plum tomatoes as we could stow; rice, noodles, spaghetti, beans, cheeses, plus fresh vegetables for as many weeks as we guesstimated they might keep. And a big bag of oranges to ward off scurvy.  All in all, a seismological event for Catagena cash registers

On the first night of my planned two-month San Blas chef stint, I stir-fried a Red Thai Curry, plus a Chinese fried rice that looked—and tasted--exactly like Goldilocks' porridge. The next night’s international offering was a Mexican Pork Stew. And then Lulu’s Fusion Foods was forced to close its doors, because LULU’s refrigeration shut down.

Panama Canal!

With the feverish freezer unable to cool down, the SSB silent as a monk and the wind meter reading rabbinically backwards, we had little choice but to move on, seeking repairs. We motored (zero wind again) another 100 miles farther west to Isla Grande to find Gringo Joe, an ex-Eastern Airlines pilot who’s carved out a second career in refrigeration. No sooner was the freezer whirring again than our satellite phone (email) and our radar repeater (night travel) both died.

Abandoning visions of near-deserted paradises, we chugged another 80 miles to Colon/Panama where anything can be shipped from anywhere. We sent the radio to Panama City, ordered a new wind thingy from Maine, had a new sat phone sent out from Canada, shipped the radar back to Washington State for repair.

Refusing to be daunted by our whiplash San Blas exit, we let the Panama Canal console us. There’s something viscerally thrilling about arriving at the Panama Canal. It's symbolic, of course. We’ve come this far, to the very end of the Atlantic, on our own steam—and sometimes even sails.

The huge container ships surrounded us, anchored, awaiting Canal-transit appointments, made us feel part of world shipping—the romantic cardamom and curries from the East thing, though in this day and age cargoes are more apt to be the prosaic Sanyo and Sansui.

One day we hired a taxi and drove to Gatun Lake, the world’s biggest man-made lake, sitting roughly halfway through the Canal and serving as its water supply. We continued on to Miraflores, one of the Canal's three lock systems, where we gawked as the ZIM, an Israeli cargo ship, passed through—900 feet, bigger than a city block, with 4,000 colorful cargo containers stacked on top of each other like kids' blocks. Its hull, barely two feet from either side of the lock’s concrete walls, never even scraped.

We watched the gates opening and closing, while 26 million gallons of water rushed out of the lock chamber, dropping the ship 25 feet in eight minutes, moving it down one more notch, nearly finished with its eight-hour passage to the Pacific Ocean’s sea level.

Awesome, in the true sense of the word.

We’d hoped to, but did not, spot some teeny white sailboats coming through, which would have represented any number of cruising friends who've passed through to the other side, on to Fatu Hiva and beyond.

For us the Canal is as far south and west as we'll go; next we start north and east to Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Who knows—we may someday make the Med, some five years later than expected.

Colon, on the Atlantic side, was every bit the swampy, filth-infested city we’d read about. Heat, humidity, slums and crumbling, graffitied buildings along dirt alleys. Scenes out of Porgy and Bess: sad old Colonial balconies, everywhere strewn with dingy laundry.  Sweating people drooped over the once-elegant concrete balustrades watching the thronging streets.

Corruption is everyday, expected. Police exert their authority, shaking down whomever, virtually whenever there’s an opportunity: catch a thief, instead of arresting him, ask for a cut of the take. Traffic cops augment their income along country roads stopping cars, looking for expired licenses, extorting payments in lieu of traffic tickets. Guards in Colon’s immense duty-free merchandise zone—where the law says nothing is allowed out except to wholesale customers— regularly palm a tenspot and look the other way as tourists in taxis pass out laden with contraband.

In stark contrast, on the Pacific side is Colon’s upscale, high-rise twin, Panama City. We bused there one day, overnighted in a hotel, picked up the repaired radio, got city-slicker haircuts, ate at upscale restaurants, toured the carefully restored old buildings and shopped at modern supermarkets.

Unfortunately the local economy has taken a huge hit, beginning in 1999, when the Panamanians assumed control of the Canal. American naval bases closed and a huge chunk of the spending population disappeared.

I was excited to be back in lemon territory. It’s been two years since we’ve seen lemons. Though the Central and South Americans have an item they call limones, they’re actually limes. Supermarket sweeps unearthed things like real horseradish, actual shallots, Portabello mushrooms, black bean paste, tahini.

 Jungle bunnies—not

Additionally (if illogically) provisioned, feeling everything mechanical handled, we took ourselves 12 miles further west, to the allegedly idyllic Chagres River, to wait for our parts. No sooner did we anchor than all 300 gallons of water we'd just made underway spilled out of our hot water tank. It had sprung what would became its fifth and final leak. After a series of welds to its flanks in Bequia, Porlamar, Cholon and Cartagena, Gary finally allowed that the intricate quilt of copper patches just wasn’t holding after all. We ordered a new one.

The Chagres is narrow, only 150 feet wide, viny and verdant, especially in this, the rainy season. And still, still, still. So still we had the sensation of being inside a snapshot. It was murderously hot—we couldn’t swim because of the crocodiles.

Though we failed to see a single one.

Live, in-ground, flora and on-the-hoof fauna seem to elude us. While other cruisers rave about frequent sightings of jungle species, rare animals and exotic birds, our score was limited to finding the black toucan hidden amid the Santa Clara Hotel’s courtyard plantings.

Sunset on the Chagres

One noon hour we meandered in a dinghy up one of the tiny Chagres tributaries, on a vigil for howler monkeys, which shatter the river tranquility more than eight of every 24 Chagres hours. Late afternoons they mount an ever-escalating chorale of dissonance, competing with the racket of rainy-season thunder, as if asserting their exclusive claim on the river terrain.

We took three sets of binoculars but found not one monkey, nor a single skinny-legged, white heron, that most common of river birds, nor even the familiar red flower that graces the cover of every tropical guidebook. We wondered if the green balls hanging from several trees were limes, apples or breadfruit, though why a breadfruit should be any color than beige, I can’t imagine. A blue spider about the size of a quarter eyeballing us two feet away raised shrieks worthy of the monkeys we sought.

”I just don’t think this Great White Hunter thing comes with the Ashkenazy gene,” said Mel.

 “The supermarket is more my natural stalking grounds,” I agreed.

We abandoned monkeys, Gary providing the apologia: “They’re probably having lunch.”

Seems reasonable: you can’t eat and howl, after all.

Instead we focused on finding the much-ballyhooed Local Hanging Sloth. Everyone had seen him. We had high hopes. Sloths rarely move more than an inch or two a day. Plus, we were armed with the Sloth Cliff Notes: precise local knowledge of his location, courtesy of a cruiser named Liz, multiply successful in such sightings.

First, she said, find the dead tree—which is near an actual signpost, about the only one in the river. (Subtext: even you’ll find it.) Then look for a tree with odd, multiple branching leaves—sample graciously provided. Then it’s a snap: simply direct our laser-corrected retinas upward.

Well, it wasn’t that easy. In this jungle setting were millions of trees, one greener and leafier than the next, though that sheer abundance of foliage did help to find the few dead ones. Once we spied the wooden sign, it came easier. We hovered, staring fruitlessly into what we were sure was the right tree, and had almost given up when I suddenly spotted a grayish cone that could just have easily have been a youngish termite nest.

He hung from one hand, scratching himself with the long, sharp claws of his other hand. Indeed, this might have been one of his active days.

“I think he’s whacking off!” said Gary, a subject area in which he considers himself well versed. Peering up into the tree with our 15X binoculars, it didn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility…

Notwithstanding this success, the Chagres ultimately defeated us. The horrific heat, coupled with the stillness, the noseeums, the mosquitoes and the particularly ugly species of local flies—resembling mini-pterodactyls with dangling feet, running continuous sorties, dive-bombing our faces—sent us flying out of the Idyllic Chagres. Back we went to Grimy Colon, which, though similarly hot and utterly still, is only infested with your basic airborne housefly.

San Andres

We did find the lure. First, there’s virtually no other safe, seaside destination for Colombians to holiday in this violence-laced country. Second, all hotels offer Club Med-type packages; you can stay in the best beachfront hotel, all meals and drinks included—for about what it costs to stay at a Motel 6.

San Andres restaurants were uniformly lackluster. Locating an unblemished tomato or a mostly-green lettuce required a sweep of all markets. Nonetheless, we eventually upgraded the island from Utterly Charm-Challenged to Kinda Funky, largely because of the universally gracious, cheery, helpful, welcoming Colombian people. All supplemented by a small but lively bunch of cruisers—an eclectic array of former business consultants, lawyers, professors, school administrators, French beach bums, N’Yawlins’ bar owners.

There’s a process of acclimation wherever we land. Unfailingly we become immersed and amused by the never-ending search for some much needed but elusive hardware item or mechanical part or substitute foreign medication. Pursuing the everyday, each town, each island—like a good stew or a fine bottle of wine—eventually releases its unique flavor.

In early August we left LULU at anchor and flew to Cartagena, where we met our son Bobby and his girlfriend, Elena, who fell easily under the city’s spell. We were having a grand old time…when Mel, who was monitoring the boat, called.

“I’m on LULU and I can’t start the generator or any of the instruments,” he announced. Not news you want to hear 400 miles away. A significant electrical storm had illuminated the skies the night before and, doubtless, we—proud possessors of the tallest mast—had taken the lightning hit for the other anchored boats.

We returned three days later (silly spoiling a perfectly good vacation) to find every piece of electronic equipment toasted. Anything that had a circuit board or diode was wiped out. No generator or inverters to make or convert electricity, no air conditioning to stay cool in, no water making, no alarm system, no bowthruster, no autopilot, no compass, no hydraulics, no coffee making, no radios, no stereo. And here we’d arrived with Bobby, a prodigious BTU consumer and a music fanatic with a 1,000-plus CD collection.

Even our brand new battery charger, the one wrested from Colombian customs after Sisyphian travails, was burnt out. With the integrated navigation system completely fried, there’d be no going nowhere for LULU. Without hydraulics, we couldn’t even haul up the anchor. San Blas in September became a pipe dream. We needed to get parts, get fixed and make it to Honduras by early October, so we could make it to New York in time to greet our eighth grandchild.

The normally unflappable Gary, lost some of his characteristic buoyancy. He was thoroughly flummoxed by the monumental task befalling him. Each system required extensive diagnosis, much guesswork as to what needed replacing, all under real time constraints. San Andres had no electronics experts or mechanics who could work on such sophisticated equipment.

“This boat will never be the same,” Gary predicted gloomily.

Worse, initially we were sure we weren’t insured for this; thus he had to be cautious about replacing entire systems. Eventually we got some good news: we read the policy and found we had a $5,000 deductible on electronics. The lightning’s tab ultimately topped $35,000. Sailboats are expensive toys!  Plus, shipping parts took only weeks, not months, was hassle- and duty-free. Our refrigeration hadn’t failed, so we lost none of our frozen steaks and Breakstone’s Whipped Butter. Fortunately, too, the toilets never stopped working and, mercifully, the wine-bottle opener remained operational.

Despite the aggravation, the surveyor dispatched by the insurance company to assess our damages told us we were phenomenally lucky the lightning hadn’t cracked the hull or sunk the boat. Later I read that lightning, with its hundred million-volt charge, has evaporated glass, roasted geese in flight and cooked a field’s-worth potatoes underground. They were plowed up later thoroughly baked.

On the road again

Bobby and Elena chose LULU over checking into a hotel but once they left and the water ran out, we joined the Cohen’s at the Marazul until we could pick up the Fed-Exed generator-replacement component.

Most of the parts came by ship after Labor Day. Gary began his installation marathon and on September 18, we did a test run. Everything worked—at least that day—and on September 20, we began purposefully meandering 500 miles north toward Honduras. We had some trepidation about plying a path with only one inhabited stop and with barely tested equipment. FEISTY was similarly sea-trialing their rebuilt generator.

Motoring 50 miles north to Providencia, we spent six days visiting San Andres’s nearby, prettier, more laid-back sister, then proceeded eight hours north to the Quita Sueno Bank, 75 miles long and eight to ten miles wide, a completely invisible reef whose ostensible safety was belied by several gigantic rusted freighter wrecks listing one way or the other nearby. Once anchored securely, we slept serenely, protected by the enormous reef, gentle waters lapping around our well-padded cradle.

Next morning we took off on the 22-hour leg, marveling that in the midst of hurricane season there’d been no wind at all. En route, the new autopilot turned cranky and we had to hand-steer, changing shifts every half hour. Wearing as the steering was, it put me in close communication with LULU; I was controlling her in a way I hadn’t ever. Other new units proved defective—the bowthruster control box and the 70-pound electrical current inverter, which meant we’d have to wrest this hulk from its tight crevice, send it back to the States and eventually re-install it. Again, the generator provided our only electricity. Those lightning bolts have had a very long reach into the present and, likely, the future.

The strike, topped by the long summer of systemic failures helped us better understand why couples quit cruising. Rather than rheumy old bodies or creeping senility or a falling stock market, it’s the incessant breakdowns, coupled with the scarcity of parts and technicians that defeats people—and primarily the men, to whom falls the brunt of the repair work. (Yes, a modicum of sexism is endemic to cruising; there are definite “blue jobs”—fixing, installing, replacing--and “pink jobs”—cooking, cleaning and laundry. Fortunate for me, Gary likes doing dishes.)

We never considered quitting. The excitement still far outweighs any aggravation: the constant beauty; the glorious weather; the frequent changes of place and pace; our unstructured but purposeful schedule; the small-town friendliness, the never-ending parade of nationalities and personalities. We marvel at and respect the courage, in ourselves and our friends, to strike out and design radically different lives.

Besides, there’s always perspective. Whatever ails your boat is often nothing in comparison to others’ miseries. Nearing Honduras, we heard that ENDLESS JOURNEY—an older sailboat, recently restored at great cost, which we’d waved goodbye to the day before—had sunk during the night. They were a mere 24 hours ahead of us on the same course. All three crew members were saved.

The catastrophe was actually still in progress when we heard it on SSB cruiser radio: the crew was in their life raft, a Coast Guard cutter and helicopter were closing in for the rescue. We were amazed (and reassured) to discover just how fast help can be on the way, even in such remote areas of nowhere.

They may have been off course and hit a reef or, possibly, the repairs to the boat weren't as sound as billed. The boat sunk deep—we’ll never know. Only one thing is certain: ENDLESS JOURNEY was a misnomer.

Shrimp boats are a comin’

At 7AM, we reached Vivorlo, the hub of Honduras’s shrimp-harvesting activity. While closing up for some catch-up winks, we noted two enormous shrimp trawlers had crept into the area behind us. Odd-looking vessels: long arms, laden with drooping angular black nets, swooped out from either side, poised for the catch. Hundreds of smart seagulls perched on the rigging, ready to pounce on the take.

By mid-day some six or seven more had anchored in the immediate area. We watched them unfurl their shrimp nets, looking like so many gypsy dancers curtsying deep, then lowering their black skirts into the water.

Around 5PM, as the great big ball of sun moved into setting position, a 150-foot black shrimp boat named CAPT KINSEY, stationed all day behind us, crept forward slowly, silently—its great hulk in silhouette—heading directly at our stern. We had no clue what was in store for us, but it sure looked menacing. When, finally, this three-story building loomed less than 30 feet away we spotted the crewman perched on the bow rail brandishing a healthy sack of what could only be shrimp, and just possibly the freshest shrimp ever.

I got the message even before we heard the entire crew chanting, "Rum, rum, rum!" Racing below, hopefully before the collision, I grabbed a dollar bottle of rotgut rum we'd been saving for just such an encounter.

But how make the exchange without CAPT KINSEY ramming right through us? Possessed of a lousy pitching arm and terrible aim—which has not in any way been improved by tossing lines these last four years—I knew lobbing it up to the bow was doomed to failure.

At this magic moment, what should appear but a small fishing dory with three Honduran guys, opportunists ready to make the swap and share in the prize. Not the shrimp prize, either. Apparently this maneuver has been done once or twice before...

A win-win situation all around. And yet another reason to love this life.

This win followed almost immediately by the birth of Casey Louise Gomes October 22; 7 pounds 12 ounces; a flaming redhead. Yes, we made it without further mishap…albeit hand steering. Which is, after all, the way we’ve tried to run our lives.

Louise and Gary


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