Life Aboard LULU

January 21, 2010 (Excessorizing continues unabated)
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 When last heard from, in May, LULU was crippled in a Bocas del Toro marina. So it’s long past time to enlighten you on almost 8 months of post-lightning strike activities.

We made short shrift of ordering replacement electronics—ultimately some $40,000 worth.  That’s just parts. While awaiting their arrival we settled ourselves into the busy sailor social life—weekly dominoes, potlucks and ladies lunches, Wednesday night Chicken-Fried Chicken dinners and delectable Friday night ribs, accented by a lively Father’s Day brunch (paper ties provided), several Fourth of July bashes and several fire dances, one enchanced by belly dancers. Plus on Thursday nights an intense trivia competition, showcasing how brainy our fellow cruisers are, embracing, as they do, an astonishing range of former occupations and current interests. Surprising, too, how information- retentive some of us still are.

Father's Day with paper ties

Fire Dance

(Not quite) Ladies Lunch

Turns out we are living the dream we envisioned—diversity and diversion in astonishing aquamarine, rather than golf green; talcum beaches instead of sand traps.

The electronics arrived in June and July: two massive shipments, each filling a local delivery launch—and overwhelming our cockpit. Undaunted by the undertaking’s scale, demonstrating unflappable (and characteristic) persistence and patience, Gary installed it all. In time to pack for our annual trip home to pat the kiddies.

First parts shipment


After a typically hectic month in New York, we were happy to return on August 19 ready to get moving toward Cartagena.

It took more than the usual four days to stash the 300 pounds of “essentials” we brought back (six suitcases totaling 50 pounds each,) The math is easy; the actual packing aggravating, the $200 in overweight charges annoying and the transporting itself dreadful—most especially those terrifying moments going through Panamanian airport immigration, where we’d been advised that forbidden frozen meats and foodstuffs, if detected, would be confiscated. The best we could hope for in such an eventuality is that should our five-pound first-cut brisket be snagged it’s by a kosher Customs agent, so it spends Rosh Hashonah with a nice Jewish family. (Of course in this scenario, the pork roast then becomes toast.)

Rosh Hashonah in Panama is actually not so far fetched: Panama City has a big Jewish population and a quasi-shtetl neighborhood with Kosher butcher, supermarket, delis, lousy Chinese food but good Chinese laundries, proper toilet paper and the requisite chiropractors, heart specialists, dentists and plastic surgeons.

In this neighborhood we picked up another hundred pounds or so of Gary’s beloved Vita Herring in Cream Sauce, Manischewitz Gefilte Fish, Gold’s Horseradish and Breakstone Whipped Butter, as well as some fabric to re-cover our cockpit cushions. Since we had to draw the line somewhere, we stopped at borscht. (Beets I can get, so borscht I could theoretically make should the need arise.)

The logistics of flight between New York and the Bocas del Toro archipelago pretty much necessitated two nights in Panama City, which stay had to be in a suites-type hotel because we needed the refrigerator/ freezer to stash our NY meat and newly amassed Panama appetizing. More: since Bocas produce looks older than our grandchildren, we swept the Panama City supermarkets for basics like Andy Boy romaine hearts and decent broccoli, plus bought more exotics, like Brussels sprouts and snap peas. (I bring my own shallots from Trader Joe’s.)

At this point we weren’t nearly finished with luggage The meat had miraculously passed through the lasers, sniffing dogs and inattentive but potentially carnivorous airport officials. Thus, for the one-hour puddle-jumper to Bocas, the entire 60-pound baggage allowance ($30 per person) had to be allotted to meat, produce and Vita Herring. We took our other 340 pounds to the Panama City national airport and sent it to Bocas as air cargo, costing 30 cents a pound. It was flown out the same day and, miraculously, was all there when we arrived the next day.


On the perils of unsupervised projects

We had little time to stash it all away—because two days later we received yet another 200 assorted pounds of supermarket and Costco-like comestibles (Heinz ketchup, Hellman’s mayo, brand-name frozen chicken, decent cheeses and some better-than-Bocas wines, which a professional Shopper Lady on the Panama mainland shopped for and shipped to us 

(Everything can be a business in these remotest of islands. And I the consummate customer.)

All I had had to do was design my order and email it to her. Or so I thought.

Gary predicted gloom-and-doom results, while I waxed rosily optimistic that all $800 worth would arrive exactly as specified.

Yes, there were some (slight) surprises, which he got to crow over.  While I got to admit I've still not learned much about delegation, specifically, and most Caribbean transactions, in general.

Like 24 bottles of wine arrived “Ordinario” instead of Riserva. Another 12 were Wrong Brand.. A case of toilet paper came double-ply and we can only use single ply in boat toilets (yes, we're always at risk for unsightly breakthrough). Three seedless English cucumbers morphed into three PACKAGES of 12.

And worst of all, the ketchup...she bought DEL MONTE!!!

But from another perspective: I merely had to put away (and not shop for) these necessities. The wine was drinkable, though it's true not applaudable.
The shopper's cucumber overkill worked great for Gary—for days to come he got plenty of
much beloved and entirely dietetic raw cukes (badly needed after a month-long New York burger and pasta tsunami) plus cucumber salad, and a brand new recipe at

The toilet paper was entirely my fault. I didn't specify one-ply (apparently
I even favor overkill in toilet-paper plies.)

Del Monte & double-ply

I could devise no excuse for Del Monte's, except the Shopper Lady is neither Jewish, from New York nor, as it happens, American.

The $800 shipment came to us in a sort of transportation triathlon: trucked first over the Panamanian Andes; second, loaded onto a ferry to the main Bocas island; third, picked up by the two of us “downtown,” transferred carton by carton onto our dinghy and taxied to LULU, inauspiciously parked on a different but dinghy-able island. And in a final backbreaker gymkhana, hauled aboard, into the cockpit and finally downstairs and inside. Thus I am not throwing out such hard-won Del Monte Ketchup bottles regardless how strange they look in my refrigerator.

Besides, I think it’s usable in our favorite homemade spaghetti recipe, invented during our courtship and suitably named Spaghetti Amore, though Your Cardiologist's Worst Nightmare works too: three or four onions, thin-sliced and caramelized amid a carton of Breakstone's Butter (or reasonable facsimile), sautéed mushrooms
(whenever possible), dumped on just-drained pasta, topped by julienne Swiss cheese, and finished with big squirts of Heinz Ketchup. All this mixed deftly and rushed into bowls before the cheese congeals.

There was one more Shopper Lady glitch. Instead of the SMALL package of mixed frozen seafood—an item I've been passing by in island freezer cases for years and had finally decided to try—she sent a 5-POUND bag. (Clearly she comes from a huge family.)

On the much closer inspection now dictated by horrified ownership and lack of freezer space) I discovered this medley consisted mainly of imitation crab accented by a dusting of real shrimp; rounds of what might be scallops, but also might not be; droopy black squid loops; miniscule mussels in that garish orange of airport-worker jumpsuits. Plus assorted fishy unrecognizables. I had no idea what to do with it besides just feed
it guiltily back to the fish.

At least she didn't send box wine!

The good news: after a brief negotiation, the shopper made up for
her glaring inefficiencies by sending a second shipment with 12 bottles of
the right red wine. Not free, but face-saving. For her or for me, I'm not

We will not be doing this next year.

On the road again

Organized, with (we hoped) operational generator, watermaker, radar, hydraulics and navigation equipment,at last we left the marina and began proceeding along the Panamanian coast towards the San Blas islands and Cartagena, roughly 400 miles. Close to ecstatic, we could once again anchor—every single night.

Sunset at anchor

However, the electrical storms endemic to this area of Panama in summer continued to dog us. After this third strike en route to Bocas—when we were actually on board to experience lightning’s mettle—they were now terrible and frightening.

Wild seas

Intrepid helmsman


We trembled at the meekest of thunder rumbles. Observing even a wan zig-zag of light trace the sky, we’d run below, stashing computers in the microwave, disconnecting radios and inverters, all the while knowing there was still a whole lot more of LULU the storm gods could decide to tickle. Heavy rains thrumming the decks at night could be symphonic but only when we weren’t on passage.

We arrived for a two-night respite in the Chagres River, about six miles west of the Panama Canal. The Chagres, dammed in 1910 to create the Gatun Lake that supplies the water for the canal locks, is about 150-feet wide, flanked on both sides with heavy emerald jungle. The Chagres doesn’t exactly flow but rather meanders imperceptibly at about one-half knot. We were alone on the six-mile stretch—just the two of us, an enormous glowing slice of full moon above and the unseen background music of countless cawing birds and braying howler monkeys

Chagres River

In our first, otherwise-empty San Blas islets—called the West Lemons—we found New Orleans friends rendevouzing on two boats. In a fine display of Southern hospitality, they included us in a jambalaya dinner onboard one, stretching the dish with more rice. We had a grand time ,with lots of laughs, savoring yet again the essence of cruising. (There was also considerable anti-Obama wrangling. I took most of those hits.)

We island-hopped across the Holandes (pronounced Holandaise) Cays stopping in a vast bay called the Swimming Pool for a cruiser beach party on BBQ island. Clearly these are cruiser, not Kuna names.

The Swimming Pool

We anchored in the exquisite Coco Banderas Cays where Kuna fishermen sold us snapper, just hours old and filleted, for $2 and monstrous 3-pound crabs for $5.

LULU in the Coco Banderas Cays

Lulu working on mega crab

Aside from ridiculously low prices we were supremely happy because, unlike most cruisers there, we simply don’t fish. A) we won’t allow blood on our teak decks and B) neither of us can deal with the final killing—accomplished by pouring cheap rum or vodka into the gills. Not to mention C): As bad as turning murderer and enduring a fish with a hook clear through its mouth thrashing on your line is watching the final death throes in your very own home.

During this time we were actually grateful for merely minor, rather typical repairs. One day it was the impeller, which had crumbled into so many parts it looked like chopped meat. The day before we discovered two water leaks, one in the rear storage lazarette, one from the hot water heater, which drained out 200 and 100 precious gallons respectively. Plus a broken bilge pump and high water alarm switch. The speedometer also turned out to be (previously) unidentified lightning strike victim.

After 10 days we reached Mamitupu, and, with new friends Neil and Kathy on Attitude, got a tour of the island, observed almost stone-age techniques

Drilling a calabash strainer

Catch of the day

We met its friendly kids and always exotic women.

…toured the island clinic

Mamitupu clinic & improvised wheelchair


There we met the unabashedly gay doctor in his raspberry and pink scrubs


Kuna doctor in Mamitupu

And finally, in a burst of farewell—and in this case almost boundless—altruism, Gary managed to buckle his much battered, Size Eleven, wider-than-long sandals on the short and slender foot of one mightily thrilled Kuna—who will doubtless be slip-sliding around in them for many years.

Some fit!

For our final night in Panama, as a sort of grand finale, we got treated to one last blast of weather fury: a super-size storm, with continuous lightning, thunder and winds of 50 knots—one gust so fierce it blew away our BBQ cover. (Journalistic integrity—with maybe a touch of wifely bitchiness thrown in—compels me to note that it flew off not from its home on the barbecue, but rather from the deck after someone—who shall remain nameless—failed to put it back on.)

Unfortunately, this wasn’t our final storm. The next day we traveled toward Cartagena, all alone in the ocean for 21 hours, quaking through seven
distinct lightning storms, all monsters and coming from every direction, each of which lit up the sky like Fourth of July fireworks.

We got no sleep but luckily this time LULU suffered no lightning, which misfortune has recently been re-named "joining the million watt club."

Yet another delegation problem

We chose to spend a few more days away from the city, anchoring in Baru/Cholon, a big, mostly empty bay, with sailboats at anchor scattered about and weekend getaway homes for wealthy Colombians dotting the lush surrounding hills.

After a short nap, we were once again good to go. Even better, with someplace to go. We were invited to a sunset party.

So, around 5PM and with some new cruiser friends, we dinghied to a decrepit wood dock to visit this ex-LA motorcycle cop who retired and built a house on one of the hills. We had met him in San Andres in May, en route from Ft Lauderdale to Cartagena. He was struggling to bring back a crumbling, rusty, leaking 80-foot shrimp boat he bought to resuscitate and reconfigure as a party boat

Cleaned-up shrimp boat now back in Baru

When it comes to projects this guy is a big thinker. Though sometimes lacking big backup bucks.

In his first venture, six years ago, he bought (with a bit of borrowed money) about 2-1/2 acres of now-prime Baru terrain, overlooking the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, and with the Cartagena skyline about 12 miles away providing still more dramatic background. Truly breathtaking views. Very cheap then. And very risky to buy property in Colombia in 2003.

So he designs a little bungalow for himself and his new Colombian novia (girlfriend) to sit on his hill. He gives his plans to a local contractor and accepts the price and terms (source of payment: rich brother, who will get a room.)

He then goes home to visit family. On his return he finds on his property—all framed out in concrete—an enormous palazzo. What the f***.

Well, the plans of this LA cop—Bob the Bungalow Builder (nickname bestowed by Gary, who is also writing here)—were in feet, but the Colombian contractors built in meters. So a 12’ x 15’ bedroom is now 36 x 45 feet or 12 x 15 meters.. All other spaces likewise. Can you imagine 25-foot ceilings anywhere except in a 16th-century castle?

He has no choice but to continue construction on this citadel, brother
grumbling or not.

Well, this place turned out big. Really big.

The carport to house his aging Toyota land cruiser could easily accommodate three Greyhound buses.

Fortunately, he does not have to heat all this. And the views are still spectacular.

Bob the Bungalow Builder and his delightful Colombian novia and 600 of their closest friends can now enjoy the spectacular views from his 150-foot long veranda.

A view from Bob's bungalow

It’s a Man's Bungalow Is His Castle come to life.


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