At Sea

Ya Mon!

We left Jamaica today, bound for the Panama Canal.

Jamaica saw us addressing some boat issues (What else is new!)

Many say that the first year of cruising is the most challenging and stressful. We agree! It’s been a real challenge for us to get to know the boat’s systems, learn to identify problems before they develop, and figure out how to resolve them. In fact, for the last week or so, we’ve worked about 10-12 very hard hours every day on the boat.

One of our biggest dilemmas has been the so-called “bright work,” or varnished teak on the boat. It gets beaten up down here in the tropics. Many cruisers simply let the varnish get stripped by the sun and turn grey. After much deliberation, we decided not to go that route yet, and to try to keep the wood up as much as possible. But that means spending a good amount of time on that project alone.

We had begun to sand and varnish the somewhat limited amount of woodwork that we have on the topsides about a month ago in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where we took advantage of some inexpensive labor to get us started with the project. We continued with help in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and again here in Montego (“Mo”) Bay. Even with help, though, it still meant that for three days last week, we got out in the heat and sun, working with long-sleeved shirts, baggy pants, and big floppy hats to prep surfaces with some light sand paper and then, by the afternoon, to lay on another coat of varnish. These were all day affairs, and took the stuffing out of us each day.

When we finished that, we went after several other “easy” projects. At least they started out that way.

One project was to clean up some corrosion on an antenna wire that ran through the electrical panel, where water had leaked on it through the deck (another project!). But this too became an all-day affair when a jar of liquid electrical tape spilled on to the back of the panel, covering a bird’s nest of wiring and fuses with a fast-setting, black, molasses-like goo that took hours to clean up. A prime example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” A one-hour project that was started at 10 a.m. took until 7 p.m. to finish. We’ve formulated a corollary of the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We add, “It isn’t broken properly until you try to fix it!”

Next, we had noticed that all of the oil had drained into a pool underneath the engine, and when we checked the oil level, it was near empty “Houston, we have a problem.” A broken main gasket?! A cracked pan? And why hadn’t the oil pressure alarm gone off?

It took us the better part of a morning to soak up a bucket-full of oil from beneath the engine, clean up the engine block, fill it with oil again, start her up, and go looking for the leak. Found it! Oil was seeping out of the oil-pressure sender, a small round plug the size of a thumb, with two wires that run from it and send information about the engine oil pressure to the dash board. There is a tiny bladder inside that had ruptured, and it had to be replaced. We went out shopping for a new one, and could only find one that had a plug for one wire. We rigged that up, and it stopped the leak. But in doing this project we noticed that neither the dashboard oil pressure gauge nor the oil pressure alarm is working. Thus, though we had been reading a very happy 50 pounds of pressure on the dashboard gauge, it had become stuck there permanently. So, two more projects, in addition to having to shop for the properly configured sender. But the leak is now solved, which is a good thing, and we’ll keep an eye on the oil level until the gauge and alarm get fixed.

We next went after the bilge, where we had noticed that an excess amount of water had begun to collect. The automatically-operating bilge pump is supposed to dump it overboard, but the water wasn’t going anywhere. Upon examination, the bilge pump wasn’t working. When we went to operate it manually, it groaned rather than whirred, and a thin fuse wire lit up like a cigarette lighter against the wall. Our first electrical fire! So we took the pump apart, cleaned it up, checked the wires, and tried again. Same thing, but this time the spark/flame burnt through the wire in about 2 seconds, and then the pump started working fine. But now the manual switch no longer works. It only works automatically. So there is probably a crossed wire somewhere on the manual switch side. For now, it’s OK, as the automatic aspect of the pump is most important. But that leaves another project for us, finding the short in the manual switch wiring.

We hear you asking, “Hey, how come your boat is always breaking down?” Boats just do. When cruisers get together, we share stories about boat projects. There’s a lot to talk about! For example, just before we left Montego Bay, we met a couple of Norwegian blokes who had just crossed the Atlantic in their 35-footer. Their autopilot quit one day out of Gibraltar, and the two of them had hand-steered all the way across the Atlantic. They also had a water leak into their electrical panel, which caused a short in the chart plotter.

The ocean is an extremely harsh environment on boat systems. And it doesn’t seem to matter if your boat is 25 years-old, or brand new. We have heard stories about new boat owners having just as many problems as us, working out kinks that were not addressed in the design and manufacturing process.

The result of all this is that we spend a good part of our days on boat projects.

But we’re managing to have some fun nonetheless, and found a little time to play in Jamaica. We liked it a lot. Some observations:

We’ve said this before, but we continue to be amazed by how very different the islands of the Caribbean are from each other, though they are close neighbors. The differences start with fashion and continue through the fabric of society. The contrast between Jamaica and Puerto Rico, for example, only 600 miles to the east, is dramatic. Take fashion, as one example among many. In PR, current fashion has women shaving off their eyebrows and painting very thin lines in their place (how do they keep sweat out when they run?!??”well, we don’t know that they run…). To the uninitiated, the result is somewhat unsettling. None of that in Jamaica. Jamaican women are beautiful, smile easily, and carry themselves erectly with a subtle hint of elan. Their smiles come easy. We got to know Verna, who worked at the Montego Bay Yacht Club, where we stayed for a couple of weeks. She came to dinner on the boat one night, and we shared stories. Like many Jamaicans, she’s had a pretty hard life. But she was quite resilient, and had nothing but warm smiles for us. Life didn’t seem so brutally hard in Puerto Rico.

Before PR, we were in the Virgin Islands. To some extent, the Virgin Islands, both US and British, are island theme parks. Sure, there are natives who live there, and they are certainly wonderful places, but they are also a bit like cruising in Disneyland, with everything set up to make one feel like you’re experiencing the “real” Caribbean. Each island has its collection of easy-to-grab mooring balls, where one shows up at about mid-day to stop for the night. The mooring fields are populated almost exclusively by “bare-boaters” (folks who charter a boat by themselves, without a captain – hence “bare”), who are down for a week to get away from it all. On shore, there is a bar, a gift shop, and a trail or two that lead into the interior. Of course there is much variation on this theme, but this is a pretty good description of what is found at each and every stop. No Spanish is spoken, and crime is relatively light.

As one moves west towards Central America, things begin to change. The “Spanish Virgin Islands,” that is, the handful of islands off the east coast of Puerto Rican that separate Puerto Rico from the US and British Virgin Islands, have a flavor that melds together the more rough-and-tumble Puerto Rican culture with the polished Virgin Islands. Culebra, for example, is like the Virgin Islands, in that it caters well to tourists, with self-styled “funky” little art shops and expensive outdoor bars where you can sit with other Americans. There aren’t as many bare-boaters here, because you’ve got to be a little bit adventurous to come this far west. That’s because the trade winds blow everything to the west, and if you come west, you’ve got to work pretty hard to get back east. Because it’s somewhat less touristed, Culebra is a bit more unvarnished than the other Virgin Islands.

Sailing further west, one runs smack into the city of Fajardo, on Puerto Rico’s West Coast. As we wrote earlier, Fajardo wasn’t too much fun, but the rest of Puerto Rico was pleasantly surprising. Ponce was quite comfortable and San Juan is a gem.

We didn’t stop at the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but the fact that armed robberies and kidnappings are common occurrences in Haiti speaks volumes about how things get worse as one goes west.

Jamaica should seemingly be placed geographically between PR and the DR if one were paying attention to the social progression, or perhaps, regression of these islands. It’s certainly not the lawless society that Haiti is, but it’s a lot less civilized than, say, Puerto Rico. Roads are barely passable in places. The police drive around in scores in parades of a handful of open-air jeeps, semi-automatic weapons protruding from the sides. There is no mail delivery service, but rather one must fetch it at the post office. “Ganja” is illegal, and the customs and police warned against using it. (“Don’t do no drugs. And don’t cross the locals,” they said. What happened to “Welcome to Jamaica! Have a nice day?!) Nonetheless, many Jamaicans we met, from the taxi drivers who took us around to the trinket sellers on the beach to the boat tour operators in the harbor, asked us if we smoked, and said that they could get us “some good stuff.”

Parts of Jamaica are somewhat gangster-like, though we report about this only from what we’ve read. We stayed away from Kingston, for example, though we understand it to be much like the bad parts of Boston or NYC, with drug-fueled gang wars and killings a real problem. There’s a movie called “The Harder They Come,” which depicts the tough life in Jamaica back in the early 70’s. If you want to see what inner city life is like in Jamaica today, watch that.

Jamaican school children must wear uniforms, not unlike kids in many schools around the world. There is a difference in Jamaican uniforms, however. No dark plaid skirts and maroon jackets here. All the colors of the rainbow are used liberally, with a heavy emphasis on lively hues. The children from one school wore bright green skirts, crisp white shirts, and yellow ties. (Think Oakland A’s!) Another had all white uniforms with sky-blue ties. When kids crowded around the bus stop, waiting for rides to their various schools, it looked like the warm-up for an all-star game. As you traveled around town, seeing new school colors was a bit like discovering a new flower.

Into this environment have been inserted a number of colossal resorts. The word “alabaster” comes to mind, indicative both of the unnatural coloring of the massive buildings and of the skin color of the tourists who populate them (Only for the first day though. We continue to be awe-struck at how tourists parade about shirtless for their first two days, changing quickly from bright white to bright pink). The resorts smack of the walled cities of yesteryear, complete with armed guards who man the perimeter. One such club-wielding guard at the RIU resort in Negril threatened to “break our bones” if we didn’t depart at once. (What happened to “Jamaica, no problem!?”)

There is a current form of popular music in Jamaica now called “Dance House.” It is really bad!!!!! Here’s how it is put together. Take a somewhat popular rap or pop song, and sample some riff from it. Now play it over and over again for 15 minutes. Then find a DJ to scream nonsense over the music as it plays, saying things like “Represent!! Represent!!!! Bring it to the People!!! “Arrrrrgggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg!!!!!!!! Ummmmannnnnnnnnnnnnaarghha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OOOOOOwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwllllligggggggggggggggggggggggggg!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Repeat for six hours. There was one such club a couple of miles away across from our anchorage at Mo Bay Yacht Club, and they would play this music so loud that the bass would reverberate through the hull of the boat. They could use this stuff at Guantanamo Bay to great effect.

We got to know some Jamaicans pretty well, like Verna in Montego Bay, noted above, and Donovan in Port Antonio. Donovan was the consummate businessman. He was waiting for us with open arms (and upturned palms!) when we sailed into port. Did we need a Jamaican courtesy flag for the boat? Sure we did! He whipped one from his pocket. “$15.” OK, not a bad deal. The flag wasn’t of very good quality, but it was a heck of lot cheaper than the $50 we pay at West Marine. We were happy with the deal, until we saw the same flag at the local discount shop for $5. We were learning about doing business in Jamaica!

Donovan was looking for work, and work we had. He spent three days sanding and varnishing with us. He worked hard, and at $8/hour, it was a good deal. We shared meals with him, and he shared stories about Jamaica.

We also met O’Brien, a taxi driver who took us around Port Antonio. O’Brien’s attitude towards relationships was typical of Jamaican men. He has three kids with the “mother of his children,” an expression that we heard often from Jamaican men. He told us that he’s been with the mother of his children for 10 years, “but I cheat on her!” Ummm, OK. “Actually, only nine years really count, because “for one year, when we had our first kid, I didn’t cheat on her.”
“How does that work, O’Brien?! By my math, you’ve only been together for one year!”
“Oh yeah, I guess that’s right,” he said, rubbing his chin with a long stare ahead. We could swear he was considering this for the first time. (We’ve changed O’Brien’s name to protect the not-so-innocent, in the off-chance that the mother of his children happens upon our blog.)

Summer is coming. Especially when the engine is running, the boat gets a bit hot. We realize too that we’re usually down here in the Caribbean winter, and it really does get cool. If you remember your trips on vacations here, a sweatshirt at night is not uncommon. No need for those anymore, and as we head into the single-digit latitudes and below, our cold-weather clothes are being bagged and stowed.

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