Posted by: catamarantwooceans | April 24, 2016

Sailing from Providencia to Panama or “The Avalanche”

19.4.16 – Tuesday – Out of Providencia at 1750. Calm seas, would have liked a bit more wind but not complaining. All is well.

20.4.16 – Wednesday – Changing of the guard at 0130. Gil reluctantly reveals that there is a problem with the waste system on his hull. As I clear away the cobwebs of sleep I can see the full disaster. In spite of briefing, someone, sometime, put the holding tank seacock in the position which fills it up; it overflowed. Gil cleaned his head compartment and was released to his cabin; I worked more than two hours on the area adjacent to the tank. No fun, no further details needed.

Once I was finished I saw that our speed was too low and started the port , our one and only, engine. Motored happily along and suddenly the alarm sounded with warning lights for both “Water hi temp” and  “Battery charge” coming on. Typical of a torn belt which runs both the fresh water coolant pump and the starting battery alternator. This was verified by a visual check, with the additional finding that the pulley of the pump was loose, a good reason for the belt to break. After shutting down all high demand items – freezer, fridge etc. I decided to wait for daylight and a little rest after my watch to fix it. We were now just like “Espiritu Libre”; no operating engine! I felt as if I had been hit by an avalanche.

When I woke Gil up at 0500 I greeted him by saying:”I have good news and bad news, which would you like to hear first?”.  Gil is the type who chooses the good news first. “The good news is that I have a spare fresh water pump; the bad news is that we have no operating engine until I replace it”. I went into the engine room at 0830; not being trained as a diesel mechanic everything took very long. I had to learn by doing and when I thought I tackled it successfully the belt and the saltwater pump belt got entangled somehow and broke. After a lunch-break I went in again, installed the belts (the one for the alternator was taken off the starboard engine – no more spare for it) checked and double checked that I did everything right and started the engine. At the time of writing – just past midnight – and after 7 hours of operation everything seems fine.

21.4.16 – Thursday – During sleep I became aware of the engine running. When I woke up at 0530, Gil greeted me with similar words to those I told him the day before. He ran the engine when the wind became light and when he throttled back to shut it down the “battery charge” light came on. I looked inside the engine room and saw that the belt was KAPUT, broken, unusable. By that time we were 35 miles from Bocas, the wind was around 7 knots and our speed was 4 knots due to the favorable current. ETA – 1500; not so bad. We could go in sailing, starting the engine for a minute or so during the anchoring maneuver.

As time passed the wind became even lighter, we were now doing 1.7 knots, not even trying to calculate an ETA. I remembered John on the engineless Taraipo recounting how the last 20 miles into Bocas took them THREE DAYS; I was not willing to go through such an experience and my mind went into overdrive trying to find a solution. I thought of making a sort of belt out of small diameter rope, giving it a few turns, sewing and taping the ends. I took a spare big alternator belt to see how it fitted; it was too small to accommodate both the water-pump and the small alternator and a little too big for just the water pump. I resolved to try the second option but first called Jeff, the mechanic in Bocas I spoke to regarding the starboard engine situation. He liked the idea, cautioning me to use low power only.

I stood by the engine as Gil started it; the belt turned the pump’s pulley. We opened up to 1700 RPM – it was still turning. That power gave us 4-4.5 knots and an ETA of 1800. At the beginning I was going back to the engine room every few minutes but later relaxed, understanding that the thing worked. The downside was that we had no charge to the neither starting battery nor the house batteries. We had to shut down our freezer and fridge and all other unnecessary items.

We dropped anchor near the Bocas marina a bit before sundown; what a relief!

22.4.16 – Friday – In the morning we called the marina and motored slowly in through a narrow channel between mangrove islets.

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We tied up at the dock; Dana, the assistant manager was there. I told him we needed to find Jeff urgently and he turned, pointing at a man nearby. “That’s Jeff”. I went over to shake his hand; the man was happy we made it and I told him about our engine troubles, showing him the damaged belt. The guy has a sense of humor as demonstrated in the following picture.

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Later in the day – entry procedure, expensive and too long; why is Mrs. Espinoza of immigrations interested in the color of my eyes and hair? And why do they need the names of my departed parents? Port Captain wants us to come to his office before we go to San Blas to pay 1.5$ (no mistake! one and a half dollar) and get a piece of paper.

The task ahead is to bring the port engine and its alternators back to normal operations; only then will I sail on to San Blas. Russell, the electrician would come on Sunday, Jeff will supervise the installation of a new belt in place of the one that broke. Let’s hope we come out of the avalanche in good shape.


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