Life Aboard LULU

June 3, 2009 (Fried Oyster)
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Lightning struck Lulu just last week…for the third time in 10 years. Around 5 A.M.  during an overnight passage, just 8 miles and 2 hours from our destination.

(Whoever is responsible for that “never strikes twice” quote deserves his anonymity).

We were feeling pretty pissed off and put upon.

Dead in the water. Literally.

But, as Life pointed out these past few days, not actually.

We were shocked (forgive me) to learn about the Air France flight, the Airbus that suddenly dropped off the radar screens and vanished from the sky two days ago.

Lightning they’re saying. (Sounds odd. Doesn’t a plane fly above lightning, thus shielded from its malevolence? Gary suspects a massive coverup.)  ‘’

But meanwhile now we’re feeling pretty lucky indeed.

It’s called perspective. Or maybe enlightenment. (Sorry again.)

Bolt from the Black

We were en route from Colombia to Bocas del Toro, a popular Panamanian archipelago, and were almost past the night part of a 26-hour overnight. We’d had a day and a night of almost no wind, flat Zamboni seas, motoring entirely with all three sails out to help get there.

The usual sleeping arrangements were in effect: me in the cockpit wide awake
but hoping, Gary dozing on the couch below, ready to take the watch should I
so much as yawn.

A dullish rain had started around midnight and—far away it appeared, lightning
zig-zagging almost aimlessly around a moonless black bowl of sky. No
thunder, no wind. Virtually no sound at all. Spooky.

We veered off course whenever we thought the squalls finally decided on a direction.

No dice.

Without much conversation, we both had the feeling it was going to get us.

It wasn't raining at around 4:30 when I took to our bed for one last stab at sleep and finally nodded off. Shortly thereafter I heard the “BAAAM!!!” First I thought it was some mean trick (but Gary's not mean, so who?) Then I figured we'd thunked another reef and that's happened so frequently lately I just smacked the pillow and rolled over. (Or probably I was just that tired.)

And then I smelled smoke.

That got me up all right.

Flames were revving up to shoot out of the big inverter that lives behind the sofa...One of
the fire extinguishers quelled it before any real damage occurred—except for the powder from the extinguisher, fine as talcum, all over, and the burnt wires smelling worse than skunk.

We got the boat back on course (autopilot dead), turned on our backup handheld VHF radio and called in the emergency on the local hailing channel. Just about everyone leaped into the
fray (or do I mean frayed?) as we hobbled in amid rain and fog. Mercifully, the chartplotter hadn’t gone kerflooey—but on the other hand the computer charts were wrong. And, there were no channel markers either. Someone came out in his dinghy to lead us in.

With the hydraulics out, obviously we couldn't anchor. Did I say obviously? Not to everyone
onboard. Characteristically, Gary figured we could drop
the 75-pound hook manually and, no problem, he'd have the whole boat fixed in a couple of

Differing with him about this plan required more patience than I can normally marshal, but after the three fuses he popped to get the windlass operating all blew, he relented and we limped into the marina with the entire dock population watching and waiting to help.

He has finally capitulated and agreed it was easier to unravel the problems, take the systems apart and ultimately he'll do a much better job plugged into a dock with air conditioning as his sidekick.

We couldn’t get into the more "in" Bocas Marina (no space for big, fat us) but there was a slip for us in the Consolation Marina, which isn’t in the thick of things and where the docks are a bit rougher. But the cruiser group seems even more diverse than the usual miscellany that’s the essence of this wonderful cruising life.

Good things that still worked: refrigeration, microwave, toaster, stove and air conditioners—as long as we’re plugged into a dock. We were also "lucky" to get into a marina at all, plus we got the sails in before the hydraulics quit on us.

The strike wasn’t a direct hit because the VHF antenna, the highest point on the boat, didn't explode. Also we didn’t sink. But it’s about as bad as six years ago when we got stuck in San Andres for four months. The generator, hydraulics, anchor windlass, inverters, radar, SSB and VHF radios, the bow thruster, fresh-water pump and autopilot—all out. Once again, anything that has a transistor or a diode got fried. Plus the main laptop—the one we use for email and iTunes.

Though the rain had picked up after I bedded down and was falling in great sheets when I reached the cockpit, Gary reported that the relative calm had continued, the wind never ratcheted above 17 knots, and mostly hovered between 7 and 10. No thunder at all and the lightning remained amorphous—until the giant thunderclap that woke me and the lightning bolt that chose LULU as its mate. (Usually we’re hit because we’re the tallest mast but in this case we were the only boat around. Friends traveling miles behind us saw one intensely bright bolt that seemed to plunge down as if targeting the horizon. It was too dark for them to see we were the horizon.)

We’ve since learned there’s a name for that non-specific, everywhere-and-anywhere lightning, where the electrical charges jump from cloud to cloud: Sheet Lightning. (And here we were thinking “Shit! Lightning!)


Damage Control

By now, almost a week later, Gary's assessed most of the damage and we've
started ordering parts that will be air-freighted in. Have no idea how long
they'll get stuck in Panama City Customs. It seems, like most of the Caribbean, nothing happens easily or smoothly in Panama either...

There's a competent computer guy who may be able to fix the hydraulics control
board, which would be great. As well as set up the new laptop.

The VHF is working now—turns out the problem was just a voltage converter, which steps down 24Volts to 12—or maybe the opposite.) Likewise, the bilge alarm. We had spares for those and a brand new spare battery charger.

(Someone remarked later that the only spare Gary didn't have was an extra
wife. He claims he didn't think the service would be any better.)

He soon got the water running again and the icemaker functioning. Probably even within
his few-hour timetable. (He really is quite amazing.) The burning smell from
the inverter fire is dissipating.

We sorely miss the SSB (the short-wave radio that mostly connects us with faraway boats) but there’s Dominoes here, as much as you want—Friday afternoons with the regular anchorage and "In" marina group, Saturday afternoons with cruisers here. Yoga too if I can schlep myself out in the dinghy and into shore three mornings a week.

The food in the cute Calypso Cantina at Bocas Marina is pretty good—Friday
night ribs bordering on excellent, Wednesday night Chicken-Fried Chicken. Respectable lunch
sandwiches and a just-okay burger that most cruisers rate “great.” Translation: cheap and big. There’s a limited menu but we're working our way through with the usual gusto.

The Cantina owners are a gay South African couple who sailed in two years ago
and still live on their boat. They've been together more than 20 years, have super senses of humor, are peppy, smart and make everything fun. One, Dyllan, does the computer
repair work on the side. The other is a certified hoot—the prototypical campy Queen, Darien plays
the role to great effect and knows exactly when to be over the top and when not.

Uninterrupted food chain

Bocas Town, on the main island of the Bocas del Toro group, has some surprisingly good provisioning. I’m talking Thomas's English
Muffins, Otis Spunkmacher bagels, which can’t be worse than Lenders, fresh vacuum-packed tuna steaks, tilapia filets, whole snappers and even big, puffy sea scallops. Fine-looking meats too, including elusive loin lamb chops. Terrific local pineapples. One of the markets makes baguettes daily—though they usually need at least 20 more minutes in the oven. But even that's okay—we get hot, crusty, bread every time.

Across the way is an Indian woman who lives in a little shack with four children under five years-old and makes (with plenty of smoke) what she calls johnnycakes, which are like giant English muffins, hot from whatever she bakes them in and not bottom-heavy with cornmeal bits that scatter everywhere when cut…Four for a dollar. (Now I’m sounding like a real cruiser.)

Our marina has some interesting amenities, including free-for-the-picking fresh basil, rosemary, mint, cilantro—but not marijuana—all prettily planted in a huge old wooden dugout canoe. Tropical flowers and vibrant bushes bloom everywhere. It rains all the time so everything is lush and colorful. Internet but it doesn't quite reach the boat. Plus about a billion noseeums, all taking full advantage of significant exposed flesh available everywhere.

Our eclectic boat neighbors include  a couple from Queens on a massive 60-foot steel shrimp boat they restored themselves and a couple who practice massage therapy from many different traditions. They owned a Napa Valley training school that sent a small army of trained practitioners around the world. They also owned and operated a string of pizzerias. Plus bought and sold real estate in Mexico. And he was a Special Forces dude who guarded Lyndon Johnson, among a slew of other presidents. (The fact that he was robbed at gunpoint at a Motel 6 last month and relieved of the $500 in his pocket indicates Johnson was lucky to die of natural causes. There's also the possibility we've met yet another con artist.)

Several of our other marina-mates are or were chefs, so the potlucks are supposed to be gourmet events.  But they're on Friday nights, which is rib night at the Important Marina. And besides, as
far as Gary’s concerned there are just too many fatties here at the Also-Ran.

Bocas Town is adorable: a riot of color and a hodgepodge of Caribbean architecture in various stages of peeling—a kind of cross between Key West before it got spoiled and a Clint Eastwood cowboy outpost. Lots of restaurants to try, most with cute porches hanging over the water on stilts. I doubt any will be great but all in all we think Bocas is a great place to get stuck.

Name Game

Meanwhile, we got a lot of sympathy and commentary, both kind and funny. When a resident wit suggested the boat would be better named Fried Oyster, we started imagining alternate names for LULU.  I came up with Chicken Little and Shock Absorber but others have done much better.

Tothill, our FBI cruiser friends, suggested

Strike Three
Lightning Rod and
Ben Franklin
(Though I was surprised they missed Wiretapped and Hit 'Em Hard.)

So I decided to turn the project over to our super-clever kids, who’ve
variously come up with:

Thor's Target
Let's Bolt
White Lightning
Charge It
Sparks A-flyin
Bolt in the Blue
Amped up
Earth, Wind and Fire
Electric Boogalulu
Hunger and Lightning
Sticker Shock
Ticker Shock
Stern Struck
Electric Lou
Sea Glitch
Watts Up

(Feel free to add your own entry.)

Lots of love from your

Frazzled Friends.


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