Sunday, April 28, 2013

Up Into the Hills

Waiting once again for the genset, we decided to make the most of the delay and took a Sunday drive up into the hills toward Barranquitas hoping to explore and do some hiking in a nearby rain forest. The roads are very narrow and winding and despite our navigation tools (Google maps on our iPhones, a Garmin GPS, and a couple odd maps) we took some accidental detours and finally reached Barranquitas just as traffic was approaching grid lock. OK, we move to Plan B.

The central hall of the regional county fair at Barranquitas.
Turns out there was a regional "county fair" this weekend and everyone for a hundred miles seemed to show up. We looked at each other and thought, "This could be interesting let's have a look/see".

The fair turned out to be Festival del Apio, with food stalls everywhere and rows and rows of handicrafts for sale. We had a great time wandering around and found a few gifts for the grandkids. The people were very friendly and most spoke some English, which was helpful.

Now we know what apio looks like.
We purchased a handbag from a woman who was an English professor at the local college and she told us the festival is in honor of the local agricultural staple, a Yuca root called Apio. Many of the booths featured foods and arts and crafts centered around the Apio (a very ugly root I must say). We never would have figured out why everyone had these ugly roots decorating their stalls. I was tempted to buy a root and see what I could make but they didn't look too appetizing.

With too much traffic heading towards our next destination we opted to head back to Salinas, where naturally we ran into another big celebration. According to the proprietor of the ice cream shop where we sought refuge and air conditioning, the parade was in celebration of the local "Carnival." We found a couple seats out on the highway and watched the parade go by and waved to all the little kids and "queens" in various cars. It was reminiscent of any small US town community parade, except for the sexy Carnival outfits worn by many of the women. Puerto Rican's have a great love of life, love of music (louder is better), and great helpful attitudes.

Out in the harbor, every weekend you can hear a steady stream of boats passing by loaded to the gunnels with locals listening to their loud rhythmic music and having a great time. Puerto Ricans definitely know how to party and enjoy themselves. We are inching closer to the possibility of leaving so I decided it's time to be productive and get out my new Sailrite industrial sewing machine and get to work. I have a great spot in the guest berth to set it up, with a vanity table with a little swing out stool. It's also the coolest spot on the boat with a continuous fresh breeze from the two large overhead hatches.

Meryl sews a new cover bag for the varnished companionway screens.
My first project was a dingy anchor bag to keep the anchor & chain and line all together. Next, I made two cockpit seat covers out of a Navy terry fabric. The fabric isn't UV protected but it feels great on our skin and it's reversible and washable. We'll see how that works out before I make the third seat cover in the cockpit.

Soon I was ready to make a screen door holder for our two companionway teak screens. I copied the design from our other screen holder that came with the boat and made a couple modifications. For this project I used Navy Sunbrella fabric reinforced with Top Gun, a heavier more durable sail fabric. It required some nice straight topstitching and with each new project I continue to improve.

Finally, I extended our Hatch Hoody so it will cover all three of our forward deck hatches and allow us to keep them open when it is raining as well as funnel a nice fresh breeze into the front of the boat. We will also be able to devise a water catchment system to collect rainwater, which will be a great help, as we don't have a water maker onboard. I have to say, I love the Sailrite Sewing Machine, as it will sew through absolutely anything with great ease. I will be making more items going forward and I imagine I will have an opportunity to repair some sails before too long.

Twenty-four days later and much poorer we are so grateful to have a working genset again (thanks for all your help, Steve and Ellis) and to be heading out into the wild blue yonder once again.

Next stop, Vieques and Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Genset from Hell

The genset: It looks so innocent just sitting there plotting its next suicidal move.
You've heard of a serial murderer? I have a serial genset, one that kills itself off piece-by-piece, day-by-day. A generator (or genset) is the lifeblood of a cruising boat (i.e. one that doesn't have other sources of electricity such as lots of solar panels or a wind generator). First, a little background. We are primarily a 24-volt boat, only the instruments and a few other devices are 12-volt. When we are motoring an alternator on the engine makes sufficient electricity to charge our 400 amp/24-volt house battery bank. A smaller alternator on the engine charges for our 12-volt starter battery. The 400 amp house bank has a convertor to charge the 12-volt house bank.

The problem begins when you are at anchor. Especially when you are at anchor for weeks on end such as we are in Salinas. We have an older refrigeration system driven by a humongous 24-volt electric motor. It sucks down 18 to 20 amps an hour and runs several hours a day. (It also has a sadistic side, it usually starts running just after we've shut off the main engine.) Add to this three computers, monitors, overhead lights, TV, stereo with a powered amp, microwave, pumps, fans and all sorts of other electrical devices that we probably don't need and it means we consume approximately 150 amps a 24-hour-day ( I haven't done the exact calculations but that's my guess). We do have two 135-watt solar panels that kick in about 40-50 amps (@24v) on a good sunny day. That leaves about 100 amps to come from somewhere, and the somewhere is the genset.

When we bought the boat the surveyor described the genset as "problematic." It was an Ample Power Ample Power Genie G24 unit produced by Ample Power in Seattle, and in its day was a great genset. It's powered by a small 4-hp Kubota EL300 (2900 kW) diesel engine. The good news is that while the main engine consumes a gallon/hour of diesel when running, the Kubota probably uses a cup of diesel in the same period. It's noisy, but it does the job producing between 40 - 80 amps per hour (the charge is controlled by a computerized Balmar MC-624-H regulator that varies the charging rate depending on how much charge that batteries need. If the batteries are low, it pours in around 80 amps and then ramps that down as the battery charges up. This type of phased charging is much easier on the batteries and promotes longer life.

When we bought the boat many key components of the electrical system had been removed from the boat, such as the batteries, inverter, etc. We replaced the main distribution lines, added a new Mastervolt charger/inverter, new Balmar smart regulators, and other electrical components. When we checked out the genset, we found that the alternator (we could never figure out the brand) had a bad stator and since we couldn't id the brand we couldn't get a replacement part. We bought (to the tune of $1000+) a new Balmar 9594-140-24-IG alternator that is rated at 140 amps, but was deregulated by the electrician to 75 amps. The logic was the larger alternator was more heavy duty with better bearings and would last longer in its de-rated state. And a 75-amp load is about all we think the 4-hp Kubota will power. So far, all is good.

Oh, I forgot about this little incident. When we had the boat up on blocks at Elite Marine in St. Petersburg to have it's bottom painted (and we were in Seattle), it decided to rain. It rained biblical amounts. Apparently leaves had blocked the drains in the cockpit, which filled up like a big bathtub (the boat was on stands and it would have been difficult for anyone to realize this was happening). Since we had the removed the steering pedestal (for road clearance when the boat was trailered from Ft. Lauderdale to Tampa), there were essentially two 1-inch holes in the bottom of the cockpit. You can guess the rest. Water poured into the engine compartment and bottom of the boat. Someone at the yard finally noticed it and got the rugs dried out, etc. But when we got back the genset wasn't working. We disassembled the waterproof (the key word here is "waterproof") electrical control box and it was full of water to the to top. Brown algae-looking junk coated the electrical connections. We had to have our diesel mechanic get a new switch, rewire the panel, and clean out everything else. At least it was fresh water and not salt water. Water had also gotten on the new Balmar alternator so we hoped that wasn't ruined (before we ever used it).

As we began cruising we found some chinks in the system. At first we had no idea of the electrical consumption of the boat. After leaving the boat for three days in Key West (assuming the solar would run at least the refrigerator) we came back to a boat with totally dead batteries (not good). No problem, we thought, we have a genset so we'll just recharge them. Didn't work. No problem, we have an engine so we'll just recharge them. No luck. We finally dug our Honda 2000 Eu gas-powered genset out of the bottom of the storage area and ran it seemingly forever (at 14 amps/hr) to charge the batteries. This scenario repeated itself several times during our first four months (we're slow learners).

Someone mentioned to me that reason the system wouldn't charge is because of some sort of computer-controlled circuit in the charger/inverter that is designed to protect the batteries when they are severely discharged. Since we were in The Bahamas and phone/Internet connections were sketchy at best, it took forever to contact the tech rep for Mastervolt, the maker of our charger. He quickly said that wasn't a feature of their product. Back to square one. Finally we contacted Balmar (just outside of Seattle, ironically) and they transferred me to their rep in Texas. I explained the problem to him and he said the Balmar regulators do have such a protection circuit. Eureka! In a deep Texas drawl (this guy was probably fixing cars under a shade tree when he was eight), the conversation went something like this:

"Son, do you have any wire (pronounced waa' re) on the boat?" "

     Yea, I've got some wire." (Spoken enthusiastically by someone who is desperate for help.)

"Have you got any spade connectors? "

     Yea, I've got some connectors."

"Now I want you to cut a small chunk of waa're and put spade connectors on each end."

     "I can do that."

He then went on to explain how to pull the wiring harness off the Balmar regulator and "jump" across two connectors in the harness, which essentially takes the regulator out of the circuit.

"Now son, listen real careful to this part."

     'Oh, I will."

"If you do this wrong you can blow up the boat."

     "Seriously, you've got my undivided attention."

He had me crank up the genset and I immediately saw about 140 amps pouring into my batteries. The danger was putting this much charge into dead batteries could, as he said, "blow the boat up." I watched carefully unit the voltmeter gauge read about 21 volts (this didn't take too long) and then turned off the genset and reattached the wiring harness. The regulator must "see" about 21 volts at the batteries before it will pass electricity for charging. Sure enough, all of a sudden I was seeing about 80 amps going into the batteries, which would slowly ramp down as the batteries came up to charge.

I wish I could explain all the anguish Meryl and I went through previously unpacking the entire boat to get the Honda genset out of its cavern and charging the batteries while the genset and engine just sat by idly (and probably laughing in their sadistic, mechanical way). One boat, Tiger Sea, even lent us their Honda just to spare us the unpacking routine while at Norman's Cay.

Now back to the story (I know, it's a long, complicated story--bail out now if you don't have the constitution for this). We have never owned a boat with a genset. We don't know how gensets are supposed to work. We didn't have the brains to read the manual. The genset was always difficult to start, so we would just crank away until it finally started (experienced mechanics can see where this story is headed). When it eventually started, it ran great. This went on for most of the summer until we were having problems with the genset not charging the batteries.

In Jacksonville a "genset expert" looked over the engine, changed the oil, and pronounced it good. In Norfolk an electrician replaced the electrical relays, which seemed to help for a while. In Charleston a mechanic rewired the harness of the field wire to the alternator. Seemed to help. But no one, not one mechanic, in response to "it's hard to start" mentioned using the pre-heat section of the ignition switch. Once we got that figured out it started right up. Well, duh.

The Genset from Hell, looking so innocent just sitting there.
Back in The Bahamas (now that we don't have access to US mechanics or parts) the genset reverted to its old behavior, and when we tested the glow plug we realized it wasn't heating up. (With all the mechanics I've watched on the boat at least I know how to troubleshoot some of this stuff now.) We ordered two glow plugs at $35@ and had them flown into Staniel Cay (don't ask how much that cost). Once again the engine started right up.

To continue the saga, at some point heading south, maybe around the Dominican Republic, the genset once again became hard to start. We checked everything we knew how to troubleshoot and decided to have a mechanic look at it in Puerto Rico, the first good place to get mechanical-type work done.

When we arrived in the small town of Salinas we tried to start the genset and nothing happened. We hadn't run it for a couple of weeks since we'd been motor sailing a lot. I checked the oil and a frothy milkshake-type goo started coming out the dip stick hole. (This is definitely not good).

This means water has gotten into the engine somehow. I changed the oil, what a mess. Meryl was not a happy camper. I put in new oil in and tried again. Nothing. I took out the glow plug and water poured out the hole (Really, really not good).
We now began the drill of asking everyone in Salinas if they know a good diesel mechanic. One name kept popping up and within a few days we had Steve, an affable Englishman from York, on the boat troubleshooting the engine. His approach is let's check out the easy stuff first before tearing the engine apart. As he was holding the exhaust hose, he noticed his hand was wet. He took off the hose and found it was slit in one location and basically falling apart even though it looked like a brand new hose. Off I went in my rental car to the only marine supply in the area to find a chunk of 1-½ inch exhaust hose.

We then took out the glow plug and water was still pouring out so we changed the oil once more. The glow plug tested OK. We had power to the starter, but she just wouldn't start. Checked fuel and suspected the injector might be bad. We drove the rental car (with no suspension) one hour west to the larger town of Ponce (on the exact week that "Hostus," essentially spring break where all the local college students get as drunk as humanly possible and drive very slowly around town -- causing gridlock -- hanging out the windows with music so loud you could hear it in the Dominican Republic). Since Steve didn't have any addresses for the places we were going, and the road names change mid block, you can image how our day went.

We finally found Rojas Injector Services and was very pleased with the service we got. A young mechanic named Joseph who spoke passable English tested the injector and said it needed to be rebuilt. I asked how many weeks that would take and he said "a couple of hours" and they had the parts in stock. Amazing. We did some more errands in Ponce then went back and got the injector. I wrapped the injector in a blue shop towel and placed it in a gallon plastic baggie. Excited, we went back to the boat later that day and scheduled Steve for the next morning.

Now the only problem here is that Steve loves dogs. Really loves dogs. So he takes care of about 25 rescue dogs at his ex-wife's house ("I'll let you keep them here on my two acres but you feed them...") every morning, so the earliest we could get started was around 10:30 a.m. (The sailors lament: one day, one project.) As Steve was finally getting set up, he asked me in that perfect British accent, "Walter, have you got the injector?" "Sure, I said, it's in the baggie wrapped in a blue shop towel. We turned that boat upside down and no injector. I start to put two and two together and ran a worse case scenario quickly thorough my head: the injector was there yesterday, but we had taken the garbage in that morning and included in that garbage was a plastic baggie full of oil-soiled blue shop towels.

As fear spread through me, I had Meryl get on the phone to the distributor in Florida to see if we could get a new injector overnighted to us, while I jumped in the dinghy and raced to shore. The garbage bin we'd dumped the garbage in was empty (they are very efficient about emptying the garbage at this marina). I ran to the back of the marina where there is a huge blue commercial dumpster. It's so high I can barely see in. After a period of ingenious engineering, I manage to drag a big potted palm over and stand on the edge of the planter (before it tipped over) to boost myself over the edge of the dumpster. Naturally, it was full. Not only was it full, but the last thing dumped in was all the raw food from the restaurant. Remember, it's about 90° in the shade here. To add insult to injury, the food mess was covered by millions of flies and yellow jackets.

But I was now "a man possessed." With just light shorts and a t-shirt on, I dive in and start moving garbage from one side to the other. I had only a vague recollection of what our garbage bag looked like and all the bags in the dumpster were white like our bag. After one of the most disgusting periods of my life, ignoring the stench, the 90° heat, the swarm of flies attacking me like fighter planes after King Kong, I was determined to find the bag.

After moving everything in the dumpster from right to left and not finding anything, I now reversed direction and moved everything back from left to right with increased diligence. Literally the last bag left looked familiar. I slowly began emptying it of familiar items, but no plastic baggy. The white bag had a kind of a fold in it and with desperation I torn into it, spying the plastic baggie with blue oily towels. The flies were now a non-event in my life. As I emptied each disgustingly oily towels I came to the last one, and low and behold it held the injector. People who have won the Irish Sweepstakes never felt the elation I felt at that moment.

Getting out of the dumpster was as tough as getting in and I nearly killed myself hitting the ground sideways, but I had my injector. I rushed back to the boat exceeding the harbor speed limit and showed everyone my treasure, but withheld the details of my ordeal. To explain the odorous smell, I did have to admit to Meryl about "spending some time inside a dumpster."

We got the injector installed and cranked the motor. I truly believed after the all the effort I exerted in the dumpster, God would just let the genset start. But alas, just the familiar grinding sound. Ugh. Next to come out was the injector pump. You know the drill, back in the rental car, drive to Ponce, fight the traffic and drunk students, have Rojas test, and they said it was OK. Joseph was nice enough to take me back in the bowels of the shop and show me how they test these things. Now I know what the spray pattern is supposed to look like on both the injector and the pump.

With the injector pump in my oily hands, Meryl (not a happy camper) and I drove back to Salinas with high hopes that we can get the genset started the next day. Our original plan had been to stay in Salinas a few days. Now our buddy boat Field Trip and other boats we had met had moved on. It's starting week two.

How a diesel engine could run with such corroded valve stems as these is a mystery.
Picked Steve (smelling of Kibble and Bits) up at the dinghy dock, motored back to the boat, genuflect in front of the genset and prayed. It still won't start. Steve gives me the look. We have to take the genset out and take it to a shop. After about two hours of moaning and groaning trying to get inaccessible bolts disconnected in the stifling hot and incredibly tight engine room, we manage to wrestle the 60 lb. genset out, up the companionway stairs, through the cockpit, over the combings, and using the outboard engine hoist, lower it to the dingy. Same routine once we get to the dock. Finally get in the back of the rental car (that we had intended to rent for only two days, it's now going on two weeks). And since it's late Friday, we have to drive around with the genset all weekend until we can take it to the dealer on Monday.

The silver lining in the storm clouds was that there was a Kubota dealer in St. Isabella, about 20 minutes west of Salinas on the highway. Got up early Monday morning so we'd arrive at Rico Tractor (Kubota makes a lot of tractors used in agriculture) precisely at 8:00 am. Luckily the manager, Ellis, spoke excellent English and assures me they can get it fixed. We then headed up to San Juan for some R&R. Ellis said he would call later when they had a chance to tear the engine apart and see what was wrong.

While touring around the incredible El Morro fort in San Juan we get the fateful call: "You genset is toast, but we can fix it." Turns out that salt water, for some period of time, had been entering the engine. This is because when you initially start the engine it is pumping water through the genset's cooling system and exiting that water into what's called a water muffler box, essentially just a big fiberglass box. When the engine starts, the hot exhaust gases push the water out of the water muffler, through an exhaust hose and out the side of the boat. If I would have originally read the manual it would have warned (IN BIG LETTERS) that when you crank the engine for a long time, the salt water slowly gets higher and higher in the muffler box (since there is no hot exhaust gas to force it out) and eventually makes its way up the exhaust riser and into the top of the engine through the valves. This is extremely bad and why people tell you "if a diesel doesn't start immediately, stop and find out why." I told Ellis to order whatever parts he needed from the States and proceed on rebuilding the engine. In our case, this meant a new head, head gasket, piston, rings, and valves.

We visited Ellis once the engine was torn apart and he showed me the old valves - how the engine ever ran is a mystery because the once robust valve stems were now rusted down to mere toothpicks. The valve seats on the head, which should be precision engineered, were just rusted globs of metal. It was very obvious why it was so hard to start - there was no compression.

The valve seats, where the valves nestle up against the inlet and exhaust ports, are also severely corroded.

The single cylinder and piston is also very corroded from the salt water.

A word about diesel engines and compression. A diesel engine is different from a gasoline engine. In a gas engine, a spark plug ignites the gas vapors, which cause an explosion to drive the piston down and turn the crankshaft around. Gas engines can tolerate a certain loss of compression in the piston chamber. A diesel, however, has no spark plug. It works by compressing a fine mist of diesel so highly that it explodes on its own. If there is any leak of compression through the valves or rings, there will be no explosion and the engine won't start. No way, Jose, as they say down here.
The good news was Ellis was competent and as a Kubota dealer he had quick access to parts from the States. He promised me a rebuilt engine in three or four days. That's a miracle when you are cruising. Unfortunately the engine wasn't ready until Friday around noon and since Steve was already scheduled to work on another boat that day, we're once again spent the weekend driving around with an engine in the trunk.

On Monday Steve came out we reversed our drill: engine out of car, walked down the length of the dinghy dock, into the dingy, out to the boat, carefully hoisted genset up as passing boat wakes rocked Flying Cloud, then carefully maneuvered it down the cockpit companionway, through the passage to the aft cabin, and into the engine room. After about an hour we had everything hooked up, and with the water off (we don't want to fill up the water muffler again), we bled the diesel fuel line and then cranked her up. After a few false starts she fired up like a champ. The only problem was dark exhaust smoke coming out of the exhaust flange and filling the cabin. Thinking this may have been oil on the engine from the repair, we let her run for about twenty minutes and it seemed to lessen.

As we were cleaning up the tools, I suggested we try to start her once more, just to be sure. Horror of horrors, it didn't start. We thought it might be the fuel pump so we checked the voltage and found a lose wire at the junction box. With that fixed we tried again. Cranked and cranked but nothing. Steve took off the fuel line and we had fuel (which meant the fuel pump was working). He cracked the line to the injector pump and we had fuel there. He then cracked the line to the injectors and no fuel. Steve thought it may be something in the governor mechanism that wasn't allowing the "ramp" in the injector pump to open once it had been closed to shut off the engine. That would mean taking the engine back out. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

After about twenty iterations of various flavors of tests, Steve said "You better call the guys at Rico Tractor and have them sort this out."

Jose checks out the injection pump on the newly rebuilt engine.

Rico said they could come out late Tuesday, as the mechanic was out today and was scheduled for Tuesday up in the mountains. Ellis and Jose, both big enough to be NFL players, showed up at the marina late Tuesday (thank you Ellis) and I took them out to the boat in the dinghy. Naturally it was windy with waves so everyone got wet. Ellis and Jose (who speaks no English) essentially did the same trouble shooting as Steve, but removed the injection pump and jerry rigged it to the fuel line and found no fuel coming out. Ellis got on the phone and called Central Parts in Florida and got a new injector pump shipped overnight (which essentially means two-day delivery).
On Thursday, with the new injection pump in hand, we dingied again out to the boat and installed the new pump. Jose had also taken the exhaust pipe, which is covered with a thick asbestos wrapping for heat protection, and had shimmed the mounting flange to get a better seal. Jose installed the injection pump and the new exhaust riser and, and as we collectively held our breath (remember we've now got three fairly good sized guys squeezed into the engine room space in 98° heat) Ellis cranked the engine. Amazingly it started right up. We let it run for about 10 minutes, then shut if off and started it again. Everything was running perfect, except . . . Jose had noticed some wetness on the metal exhaust pipe (there was no exhaust leak, however) and we worried there may be a crack in the pipe. They tightened all the hose clamps and checked the fitting, then started the engine once again and this time water was gushing out! (I now die a thousand deaths.) As Jose unwrapped the asbestos and the exhaust pipe literally fell apart in two pieces; it had been held together mostly by the wrap.

With collective looks of disbelief we talked and Jose said he knew a guy at a body shop that could weld stainless and hopefully we could have it by Friday. Turns out they needed to replace a small chunk of the pipe and the only place they could get that size was in San Juan. It was ready late Friday, but there was no one available to pick it up (we had turned in our rental car). The exhaust guy said he'd be there on Sunday, but wasn't when Elis stopped by. Ellis was busy all Monday morning, but finally got a hold of the guy late Monday and was nice enough to have one of the Rice Tractor guys drop it off at the marina on the way home. I carried it down to the boat like it was "The Holy Grail." Back at the boat, which as been a disaster area for three weeks with doors off the engine compartment, tools everywhere, etc., I very carefully installed the repaired exhaust header with fresh high temperature sealant around the flange. One lock nut washer was missing, and of the 75 lock nuts I had on the boat not one was a 5/16". I made do with a larger size and said a little prayer as I started it up. Cranked over on the first turn and ran like a champ with no leaks. We're now going to make it SOP on the boat to run the genset a little each day, whether the batteries need it or not.

You know when you sign up for this lifestyle that there are going to be days like this (who said it would be three weeks, however) and we're learning to accept that fact and go with the flow. Much like the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," you find you need a much different mental attitude if you are going to survive out hear without going nuts. Every boat crew we've talked with has similar stories, the only difference is that the wealthy boats can fly in mechanics and parts and just feel the pinch of pain when they write out the check. The rest of us learn the importance of preventative maintenance and learning as much about everything mechanical on the boat as possible. A boat exists in one of the harshest environments in life: constant motion, high humidity, corrosive salt, dampness, and a plethora of mechanical and electrical devices in confined spaces. The bottom line, however, is that everything on a boat has to work. Your life may depend on it someday.

P.S. My heart still skips a beat everything I go to start the genset, but so far so good.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Only … 24 Days in Salinas

Leaving a anchorage at o'dark thirty allows us one advantage: enjoying some incredible sunrises. When you are at sea everything around you is horizon and when part of that vast horizon is filled with a cornucopia of yellows, oranges, magentas, reds and everything in between, it's a great way to start the day. For the last week we had been anchored at somewhat remote places so we were anxious to get to a port where we could get our genset repaired, water and fuel tanks refilled, and stocked up on provisions. We had heard that "pseudo-US" Puerto Rico with its Walmart's and Costco's was a great place to reprovision. It also would be nice to enjoy an occasional McDonalds chocolate sundae (Walter) and shop at stores with a greater variety of food and supplies.

The town of Salinas half way down the south coast of Puerto Rico fit the bill perfectly. The anchorage is surrounded by a number of small mangrove islands that provide good protection from storms. Many boaters ride out the hurricane season by running their boats up small canals in the mangrove swamps and then tying a spider web of lines every which way to hold them tight.

Anchorage at Salinas, Puerto Rico.
Fueling up was our first priority, but when we saw the dock we knew it would be a challenge. To enter the fuel dock at Marina de Salinas you had to navigate a narrow opening and then try to align your boat with the dock at a 45 ° angle. We barely squeezed ourselves in and got refueled, but a 20-knot wind on our beam pinned us to the dock. We finally had to call Mark on Field Trip to come and use his dingy to push our bow away from the dock. Thank you Mark (we actually owe Mark and Sara a thousand thanks for their incredible generosity to us over the four weeks we've sailed together.

The staff at the Marina de Salinas was very accommodating for the cruisers anchored out in the harbor.
Freed from the jaws of the fuel dock we found a spot to anchor a little further out in the harbor, which was surprisingly crowded with sailboats given how late in the season it was. We tucked in about a ¼ mile from the marina in the "cheap seats" of the harbor (something we later regretted as we made frequent trips to the dingy dock in 20-knot winds).

We dingied in and took a "lay-of-the-land" walk to explore the basics: laundry, groceries, where the best cruiser bars are, where to get the great baguettes, etc. We also started networking with the locals and other cruisers to find a good English-speaking mechanic to help with our broken genset. (I will not go into further detail on this matter as Walter is covering that topic in excruciating detail in a later post!) We needed a car to help get genset parts, provisions, and hopefully see a little of the city of San Juan and the rain forest areas. Luckily the marina told us about a local Hertz guy who would deliver a rental car directly to the marina. The marina staff was very helpful and even allowed cruisers to park their rental cars in the parking lot.

Jean, the very friendly owner of Sal Pa' Dentro, a local cruisers bar in Salinas near the marina.
We spent a lot of time at the marina's outdoor café cooling off, meeting other cruisers for happy hours, and enjoying the great BBQ dinners every Friday night. We even ran into some friends of Field Trip's, Sea Shell and Wind Lass, who taught us how to play the de rigueur cruiser domino game, Mexican Train.

A rousing game of Mexican Train dominoes, a favorite among the cruiser community.
Life in Salinas settled into a routine. Mornings were focused around Walter and our British mechanic Steve pondering the 1,000 reasons the genset wouldn't start, running errands, and traveling one hour down the coast to Ponce -- the second largest city in Puerto Rico -- to get parts. Once the genset was removed from the boat and taken to the Kubota dealer (20 min. away) and we had some semblance of order on the boat, we then started stocking up on non-perishable goods at the local Walmart Super Store and I started hunting for more space on-board. We'll do our major provisioning at Costco in San Juan and I will then top-off from Walmart and Selectos, a good local grocery store, for vegetables and fruit to complete our re-provisioning for the next 9 to 12 months. Imagine having to plan ahead 9 to 12 months every time you go shopping, and facing the prospect that most items you buy will not be available later on.

After all the stress and disruption caused by the genset rebuild, Walter and I decided we needed to treat ourselves to a night away from the boat. With the settees covered with tool boxes, the smell of oil and diesel in the air, and nothing in its place, it all wears very thin on you considering your entire living space is the size of a big closet. We found a hotel on Priceline, along a beachfront strip just east of San Juan and booked a room for the night.

The green hills that run down the center of Puerto Rico and create many of the afternoon thunderstorms.

After dropping off the dead genset with the Kubota dealer who assured us he could get it running (but at what cost?), we then drove on the highway away from the flat coastal plain and slowly climbed up into the verdant green mountains that dominate the interior of Puerto Rico.
Our first stop on the way to San Juan was West Marine to get marine parts and supplies and then on to Astro Industrial (we almost got divorced trying to navigate to this location given the aggressive drivers, narrow streets, and Spanish traffic signs), a large industrial supply company in San Juan. The trip to Astro was successful, however, since Walter had been looking for a 12 ft. piece of 3/8" stainless steel chain to lock up the dingy at docks. We found one in the Abacos and they wanted $400 for it. Walter got it for $78 at Astro. Now we can have some assurance our dingy will be at the dock when we get back from having dinner.

Looking east from El Morro along San Juan's Atlantic coastline.
Leaving Astro we navigated the narrow streets to the historic Old San Juan section at the head of the harbor and amazingly found a good underground parking garage (parking is non existent in the section of town).

The esplanade leading up to the walls of El Morro.
We walked along a beautiful expansive esplanade of grass that lead up to the "El Morro" fort, built to protect San Juan Bay's deep natural harbor from the marauding British, French, Portuguese, etc. during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The harbor was strategically located along the trade routes from the New World back to Europe where Spanish galleons transported a fortune in gold and silver. Construction of El Morro commenced in 1539 with additional fortifications of Castillo San Cristobal and San Juan's city wall added in 1634. From the 1500's through 1700's enormous New World riches supported Spain as a world power.

The fort had six levels and we explored all of them imagining what it must have been like to be a Spanish Musketeer protecting the Bay from English and Dutch attacks.

It's fun to read historic novels of the pirate days and then walk the same ramparts and corridors depicted in the novels. Really brings history alive for us.

Throughout Old San Juan, we saw many tributes to Christopher Columbus and his sighting of Puerto Rico in 1493. We found the town of Old San Juan to be very picturesque with historic churches and buildings dating back to the 1600's.

We meandered up Calle San Francisco and back down Calle Fortaleza looking at shops, galleries, and outdoor restaurants along the way. We finally stopped at a local frozen yogurt shop to cool off in the air conditioning and enjoy some great yogurt, a real treat when its so hot and humid outside.

We enjoyed walking in the cool shade along the Pasceo de la Princessa, which meanders below the walls of El Morro.
We later discovered a wonderful walk along the harbour at the base of the fort's walls called Paseo de la Princessa, resplendent with small parks and gardens with statues. Old San Juan proved to be a wonderful place to get in some walking, now we just have to find the hidden underground parking lot and brave rush hour traffic as we try to find our hotel on the outskirts of San Juan.

After living in 400 sq. ft. of space on the boat, this was the lap of luxury for us.
We checked into our room and immediately enjoyed the luxury of air conditioning, local TV, a flush toilet, and non-stop hot running water!! I realize these amenities are not essential and one can certainly get along fine without them, but once you luxuriate under a 20 minute show it brings back all the memories of our previous lifestyles. (I took 3 showers.) We had dinner in the hotel and then headed down to the hot tub to relax before retiring for the evening.

The next morning we found a great little breakfast spot down the road and then headed out to the beach and pool area. We took a dip in the pool and relaxed on the huge lounge beds and read our books. It was great to relax and not think about all the other things going on in our lives. A vacation from the vacation.

Next on the agenda was to stop at Costco on the outskirts of San Juan, which we did in record time as we had forgotten that our US bank debit card had expired (our mail was waiting for us in St. Thomas). So with limited cash we kept track of each item's cost with the iPhone's calculator until we came to within $8 dollars of our total, just enough left over to get a Costco hot dog and coke ... phew! We drove back to the marina and hauled the goodies from the car, onto the dock, into the dink, motored out to the boat, lifted them up to the cockpit, down into the cabin, and then wrapped most items in zip-locks and squished them into various nooks & crannies under the settees and in the cabinets. What would take one maybe a couple hours at home, on a boat usually takes a day or more.

Finally relaxing after all the provisioning drill, we remembered that all our "buddy boats" had left that morning heading to the Spanish Virgin Islands. We were feeling a bit sad to have them all leave without us. It was time to practice two key principals: "Patience" & "The Big Picture". The genset will get sorted out eventually and we will be on our way again; we are healthy and doing fine; and we have no precise cruising plan so we can always do another season in the Caribbean, and sooner or later we will catch up with our friends and maybe make some new ones along the way. So no worries ... I'm feeling better already.

A day later our genset was finally fixed and ready to pick up. We scheduled Steve to help reinstall and check it further. It ran great but when we tried to restart it, it wouldn't budge. We all died a thousand deaths but realized we're getting closer to having a reliable genset just as soon as we get through this new set of problems (turned out to be a dead injector pump to the tune of $400 plus overnight shipping from Florida) is fixed.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Windy Day at Coffin Island

Caja de Muertos, also called, "Coffin Island" because of its coffin-looking shape, is our next port of call. We had another 3:30 am departure, but with a better wind angle today we sailed most of the way arriving just after 9:00 am. We met up with Field Trip who had left a little earlier than us and the two boats were about the only ones tied to the mooring balls just of the beach. Thank God the mooring balls where on the lee of the island because the wind was really ripping that day.

Coffin Island is a State Park with nature exhibits and trails around the island. We wandered around the western tip of the island and then over to the windward side where we were nearly blown away in the strong steady Easterlies. Once you gained your balance, the view was breathtaking.

It was really windy on Coffin Island; we were afraid the little ones would get airborne.
Two babes.
We headed over to the trail to the lighthouse and now out of out of the strong winds, started taking off layers of clothing as the temperature climbed.

Elizabeth, our resident photographer, records our journey for posterity.
Mark and Sarah's daughter was our resident paparazzi, taking pictures of everyone as we hiked along the cactus-lined trail. Along the way we had lots of opportunity to chat about this and that.

Elizabeth finds out why you don't play with cactus!
The trail up to the lighthouse.

After a long flat stretch, the trail grew steeper and longer than anticipated and became a tunnel through the overhead foliage. Once at the top the 360 view was incredible.

View from the top of the lighthouse across the Caribbean.
Lighthouses such as this were the only salvation to mariners before the days of GPS and chart plotters.
Flying Cloud delivered a special 10th anniversary cake to Mark and Sarah and Field Trip.
Later that afternoon Walter delivered (by dingy) a special 10th anniversary cake over to Field Trip. We wished them the best and they had a little family celebration showing special videos of their wedding day 10 years ago and their early years together.

Congratulations Sarah and Mark!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gilligan’s Island

We decided it was time to get back on the Van Sant (author of the guidebook "Gentleman's Guide to Passages South") schedule and departed Boqueron at 3:30am, however, it was closer to 4:00 am by the time we actually got underway. We have never had any issues with our anchor system but that morning the chain was stuck in the metal descending tube and would not go up or down. Walter went below to see what could be done and I tried moving and wiggling the chain from above. Thank goodness the chain finally unkinked and we were able to raise the anchor and be on our way.

It was still dark and we could see a masthead light far ahead on Field Trip as they motor-sailed along the coast. The winds were still very mild but as the sun comes out and starts warming the land the wind soon follows and follow it did. By the time we reached Gilligan's Island we had over 25knots on the nose, but it was a good motor sail and we had made decent progress against the wind. As we anchored we watched a group of windsurfers tacking across the bay. What a perfect place to windsurf with steady Easterlies everyday.

Windsurfers on the inner lagoon near Gilligan's Island.
Gilligan's Island is a small state park with a ferry service bringing people over to the mangrove beaches throughout the day. We heard it wasn't unusual to have over 300 people visiting on the weekends but fortunately it wasn't too busy during our visit. As we were getting out of our dingy at the park dock we were met by one of the windsurfers, a friendly German named Gerd. He chatted with us and Field Trip and we learned he lived in the beautiful house across the bay and wind surfed everyday. In later conversations, we learned he spends his winters in Puerto Rico and summers in Redmond, Washington and used to work for Microsoft! He had retired some years ago and while visiting some friends in Puerto Rico discovered this bay and loves the island. More later.

Day trippers visit Gilligan's Island using the local ferry.
Many local families were enjoying the beach but most were in the water keeping cool. We found a nice spot near the end of the beach with a little shade and put our chairs out in the water to keep our feet cool. Mark decided to return to his boat and get a couple blow up toys and showed up with a large kayak and a very large blow up stand-up paddle board.

Michael with the kids.

Meryl is a natural on a stand-up paddleboard
The kids had a ball paddling and floating in the mangrove river and everyone got an opportunity to paddle the board upstream against the current and then speed downstream trying not to get hit by an overhead branch.

Walter takes his hand at SUP'ing towing Elizabeth and Michael behind.
Walter and I also attempted a little snorkeling upstream and got quite a workout trying to fight the current. We had to grab a mangrove root every so often to rest to keep from losing forward progress.
Meryl and Walter try snorkeling along the mangrove canals with a strong current.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Working Our Way East

This morning we departed at a civilized hour of 10:00 a.m. for the relatively short 16-mile trip heading east towards Boquerón. We motor sailed close to shore to avoid the stronger wind and waves and after about an hour we were heading right into the predictable 15-20 knot Easterlies. The night before we had tried to determine the best spot to get fuel but it isn't always that easy to get the "right" information. So we bypassed Puerto Real and decided Boquerón would work better. When we rounded the point for the anchorage we ran into winds blowing 30 knots right on the nose and somehow managed to get anchored and settled in. Van Sant, our guide guru, had painted Boquerón as a bohemian weekend haunt for university students with bars and restaurants everywhere. Some how reality didn't quite match and we found Boquerón to be kind of a do-it-yourself type anchorage with limited access and amenities.

Abandoned dock at Boqueron.
We managed to find a rickety dingy dock that was somewhat life threatening (especially if you had been drinking) and took a walk around town to get our bearings. We found a small little grocery that carried the basics, including ice cream Dove bars. Down the street was Doggies, a gas station that carried diesel, but you had to pump it into jerry cans and carry it across the street to the marina where your dinghy is illegally parked. Walter ended up filling 2 cans (12 gals.) and got a little work out carrying them to the dinghy and explaining to the marina owner why he was illegally parked at the dock. Guess we should have stopped at Puerto Real to get totally topped off.

We later met up with Field Trip and some other cruisers at an impromptu happy hour down by the dingy dock. Beer was provided by a nearby store at $1 a Medallia (the local beer) and many conversations ensued. Cruisers are always your best reference for information and we heard what areas to visit inland, where the good anchorages are, and where to get whatever you may be looking for. It is always fun to hear where people are from, where they are going, and how long they have been out living the cruising life. It is customary to share a boat card or two and share & tell many a sailing story.

Sara, Meryl, Walter and Mark at Galloway's in Boqeron.
We eventually headed to the nearby waterfront restaurant, Galloway's with Field Trip for a nice dinner and toasted to our accomplishment of completing the hardest part of The Thorny Path. Now we are starting to slow down just a little...but we still have quite a distance to travel before we reach the Caribbean.      (*Posted by Meryl)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Back in the USA (Kind Of)

While the weather wasn't particularly conducive to sailing the direction we wanted to go (it rarely is), we decided we needed to keep moving and departed Ocean World at precisely 6:00pm. We didn't want to depart at precisely 6:00pm, but the Navy Intelligence (Remember the guys who checked us for any illegal cruise missiles?) came down the boat and checked us out of the county, literally untying the boat and pushes us off the dock. Adios! We wanted to leave later when the winds where less, but that's the deal.

Departing Ocean World at 6:00pm wasn't the best of ideas.
The minute we rounded the breakwater we wish we hadn't left. Large waves on the nose plunged the bow underwater and rollers washed down the deck in the 18-knot winds. Not a great way to start a long passage. The winds continued strong all night as we hugged the coast trying to take advantage of the night "lee effect." We could see Field Trip pitching up and down ahead of us and knew it was going to be a long night. To make things worse, Field Trip would radio back to us "Did you see those nets straight ahead" or "Did you see that small fishing boat?" Well, with the dodger covered with spray and with the total darkness we couldn't see a thing. Thank God we had them ahead of us (they have an elevated helm seat with glass windows, windshield wipers, and eyes 30 years younger than ours.

We cleared our first cape, Cabo Macoris, in the dark. This was a long 95-mile leg and we needed to be around the next cape, Cabo Frances Viejo, by 8:00 am before the winds funneled around it and made passage difficult. Trading off watches Meryl and I made it through the night without t-boning any small fishing boats or getting caught in their buoyed nets which were extremely difficult to see in the best of conditions.

As we rounded Cabo Frances Viejo Field Trip and Flying Cloud took photos and videos of each other with the dramatic steep-sided cape basking in the orange morning light.

Our original plan was to stop just short of the cape at Rio San Juan, but we decided to just go for it and get this tough piece of coastline over with. The way things work in the Dominican Republic is you have to check in and out of every port. That's a huge hassle and we didn't want to do it if we didn't have to, so our plan was to just stop when we needed rest and not get off the boat until we were in Puerto Rico.

The Dominican Republic is quite spectacular from the sea with towering mountains covered in a verdant green cloak of tropical vegetation. As we approached Escondido (also know as El Valle on the chart) at 1:30 pm we marveled at the beautiful, secluded little bay. It looked like something you'd see in Tahiti or Bora Bora. There were a number of fisherman's huts on the shore and Field Trip radioed back that the fisherman would like us to anchor down the beach a ways since they were fishing right out in front of their village that day. Fishing was a community effort, a small boat manned by five or six fisherman would put long nets into the water a distance off the shore then circle back to the beach and pull the nets in with, hopefully, their catch.

Keeping a look out in the dim light was not easy.
After the long passage we took a well-deserved nap, had dinner, and then began planning for our next leg to Playa de la Cana in the Bay of Samana. The "Thornless Path" book recommends boats go to the port of Samana, but we'd heard it was a hassle and we'd have to deal with customs and port officials once again. Plus it was about 10 miles out of our way. Mark on Field Trip had found a neat little protected cove on the chart called Les Miches (Playa de la Cana) that was more on a rumb line course for us, so we set that as our destination.

Once again we left at o'dark thirty for the 34-mile leg south by southeast down the coast. We had to round two major capes, Cabo Cabron and Cabo Samana, before a short open water passage to Les Miches. The wind was on our nose so we motor sailed a good portion of the trip. During Meryl's watch, Sarah called to warn us of a diver along our course to starboard. We soon passed a solo diver in waters over 40 feet at least a mile or so off the coast with no flags or boat nearby. He simply waved as we motored by. Maybe a half-mile later we came across a small boat with a person just sitting & looking around. We surmised he was with the diver, but not safely nearby by in any means. This gave additional impetus to keeping a good watch along the DR coastline.

Around noon we arrived in Playa de la Cana, a beautiful curving beach with a point stretching out to the southeast that provided protection from the tradewinds. We didn't realize it at the time but may have anchored right in front of some sort of military base with white walls and barbed wire fences. A boat with some guys in uniform started out to where Field Trip was anchored, but saw the kids playing on the foredeck and turned around. As usual after a long night passage, we took a long needed nap during a strong rain storm, then had a leisurely dinner in the cockpit watching the beautiful scenery as the rain cleared out.

Route across the Mono Passage from Les Miches to Mayaguez.
Once again, up at 4 am for the 120-mile passage across the Mono Passage to Puerto Rico. This is one of those passages that southbound sailors dread. Essentially the entire Atlantic Ocean wants to go through the narrow passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The prevailing winds are easterly, the exact direction we wanted to travel. At the top of the Mono Passage is the feared Hourglass Shoals, a large area of relatively shallow water that causes waves to "stand up" as the cross over. On top of all this is a constant 1-knot current that flows mostly south to north through the passage. There's no easy way to do this one. We'd heard of one sailboat being dismasted when it was hit by a ferry in the middle of the night and the Coast Guard had an alert out for a 58-ft. sailboat with six people that was missing while crossing the Mono Passage (later found OK).

All the expert advice is don't try to cross in any wind more than 20 knots. As we started out early in the morning it looked like we'd have somewhat decent wind 10 - 15 from the northeast. We paralleled the coast as far south as Punta Macao, the last "bail out" port. The sailing was brisk, but controllable.

Abandoned resort complex looks like some sort of modern Mayan ruin.
As the dawn broke across the Atlantic Ocean the shoreline was bathed in a languid orange flow. We passed by what looked like a large university or resort complex that was about ¾ finished, but now standing empty. You see a lot of that down here.

Right before the Hourglass Shoals we hung a left and began the crossing the Mona. The winds increased to about 18 - 20 knots and we reefed the genoa and sheeted the staysail in tight. The most difficult thing was keeping the bow from being slammed down to leeward when the bigger waves hit. Field Trip had left one-half hour earlier but was doing a horizon job o us as the wind angle seemed to favor the big cat. It was basically a day of attrition, trying to hang on as the waves hit the boat and getting some much needed sleep for our upcoming night watches. As night fell we keep an eye on the radar and once called Field Trip when we saw what looked like a huge spaceship on the water straight ahead, only to find it was two large cruise ships, one heading south and one heading north, that were right next to one another. It looked like a brightly lit football field at night in the middle of the Mona Passage. We weren't in a huge hurry as we wanted to arrive in Mayaguez around 6:00 am so we could navigate the harbor entrance in the morning light. Turns out Field Trip arrived around 2:00 am, anchored, and took a long nap.

Field Trip at anchor in Mayaguez while the crew clears US Customs.
Once we arrived and took a short nap, around 8 am I began calling on our costly satphone trying to contact US Customs. None of the numbers I called answered or I got some sort of message in Spanish. After a very frustrating ½ hour I finally called a US Customs number in the States and they gave me a fifth number to try in Mayaguez that finally answered. Since we were enrolled in the Small Vessel Reporting System, we just had to give them our float plan number, answer a few questions, then it was "Welcome back to the US." Field Trip, on the other hand, had to dinghy in with the whole family and go through the Customs / Immigration dance, including taking in a bunch of vegetables and meat they'd purchased in the Dominican Republic to turn in to the Agriculture officials.

We decided to just stay on the boat and veg out. We had hoped to go ashore and get new SIM cards for our phones, but since it was Sunday we didn't think anything would be open. We'd had a continual problem not having working cell phones (with the exception of the satphone) and limited Internet and hoped that was something we could correct in Puerto Rico. We had ordered a new WiFi antenna and amplifier to be shipped to Ponce, but that was still about a week away. The new plan was to try and find SIM cards in Boquerón the next day. We had been traveling at night for almost a week on and off and the erratic sleep schedules where taking their toll on us. It was time to slow down and as Bruce Van Sant recommends in his Passages South guide book, have a SG&T. (Sundowner Gin & Tonic). We just need to follow all of his good advice.