A Plan or Plan A

April 19, 2021

Any further thoughts of getting through the Panama Canal before summer are one hundred percent in the crapper.

The Pacific Ocean is still our goal… it’s just gonna have to wait a bit.

Covid uncertainties have taken the South Pacific off the table for us long ago.  Even the Pacific coast is up in the air.   Costa Rica just opened back up to outsiders with stringent requirements.  Mexico never shut down, but we still have serious concerns about potential fallout from the US causing an impact that could effect our ability to get to, clear into, or stay in the Sea of Cortez – our only other real option for long term occupancy on that side within any reachable proximity.  If that’s where we really need to be going, we should have left long ago.

Constantly changing immigration and travel policies of various individual countries, as well as our own hesitations have drastically limited our options. 

The one certainty —- a haul-out is mandatory in our very near future.

What a fucking dreaded combination of words… haul-out.

Exactly the opposite from our tried and true philosophy of staying away from hard things, haul-outs require us to actually pay money to have someone pluck Exit out of the water and balance her precariously on stands in essentially a boat parking lot.  Eew.

But… unfortunately, a necessary evil.  Only so much underside inspecting and maintenance can be done with Exit in the water.  And we certainly have more than a tide cycle worth of work, so beaching her for a few hours on a low tide (which she is fully capable of doing —- one of many advantages to her lifting centerboard design) is not really helpful in this case.  At over two hundred dollars a gallon, we can barely afford the copper-free ablative anti-fouling paint (very few options on an aluminum boat) as it is.  A dreaming boat owner’s wishful thinking of any in-water application option being offered on bottom paint would instantly be dashed by the pricing that would inevitably be attached to such a technological convenience.

… which leaves hauling out.

On aluminum boats, corrosion protection involves inspecting the bottom, sanding any suspect spots down to bare metal, brushing on multiple coats of epoxy to act as a protective barrier coat between the boat and water, followed by the application of numerous coats of anti-fouling paint using rollers.

Exit was on the hard when we bought her.  The haul-out was already started.  The new bottom paint that we put on before launching lasted about a year.  One year later we returned to the same boat yard.  Like a seasonal migration.  Familiar territory.  Only, the second time we adopted the strategy to lengthen the time period before a third haul-out would be needed.  We were learning quickly.  This time we put on eight gallons of Interlux Trilux33 paint; it was all we could afford. 

Now, after nearly thirty months, there are sections along Exit’s waterline that have no bottom paint left and are down to the epoxy barrier coat.  Without the anti-fouling paint, a green beard of algae grows chronically, requiring aggressive scrubbing, further exacerbating the problem by removing even more paint along the edges of the bare spots.  A cascading sequence.

So, the inevitable haul-out.  

Ultimately, it’s no different from the proposition behind any other maintenance inconvenience.  Today’s pain in the ass hopefully prevents tomorrow’s even bigger repair nightmare.

Three obvious options, given our current location.  As many opinions as people you ask, and even more opinions from those you don’t ask.  Option one: Bocas Marina Boatyard in Almirante nearby.  The closest and the cheapest, but it seems we’re a bit big for them and the bugs are apparently brutal.  Not conducive to living aboard during the work.   Option two:  Shelter Bay (a hundred miles to the east).  Apparently a nicer facility to be at but also more expensive.  Option three:  a bit farther to Linton Bay. 

We only half joke that we need to complete the haul-out more to have people stop asking why we are hauling out at a chosen location than to actually get any work done.

Shelter Bay is the decision.  Until it is done, it’s going to be questioned.  

Regardless, it’ll be our first haul-out in a new location.  Panama, no less.  An adventure, no doubt.

A kicker in the decision came after we learned about a couple we met in Bocas around six months ago currently at Shelter Bay Marina.  After deciding to sell their sailboat, they are wrapping up their haul-out and preparing to fly out of Panama.  For us, the kicker was not based upon any facility updates or haul-out information they provided.  Rather, it was the fact that they are trying to sell the brand new dive compressor they currently have on their boat… Oooooooooooo!!!  

We just have to arrive in Shelter Bay with $3000 before they fly out.

Anchor up!


Thankfully, one of the upsides of our extended stint in Bocas del Toro was the fairly major list of boat upgrades and replacements we did manage to accomplish while waiting for pandemic lockdowns and uncertainties to play out.  Costly, to be sure.  But, at least now they would not be looming over our heads as we approached this haul-out.

New windlass, anchor, three hundred fifty feet of chain, wind speed transducer (at the top of the mast), engine raw water pump, leaking transmission seal replaced… all in the done column.

On the other side of the pendulum swing, we are still reeling from the devastating loss of our Fischer Panda generator (at this point it appears the white smoke I released could potentially cost $5000 to repair which won’t happen), as well as the literal disintegration of two separate air dump valves on both our Scuba Pro BCDs on the same day (Kris’ may be salvageable with a bit of Frankenstein triage field surgery, but mine is finished).  After surviving on an island in Borneo for years, the plastic just fell apart into tiny pieces sitting in the closet on the boat.

No generator… no backup battery charging.  No BCDs… no diving.  Shit.

A dizzying list of other ambitious projects fill page after page of our notebook —- not so much mandates to complete before we re-launch Exit, as options while we are hauled out.

Some, like our bimini and dodger covers which are filthy and have very little waterproof qualities remaining, are prime candidates for any leftover time we have.  Extra space to work, extra water for cleaning.

Replacing all the underwater zincs and yearly maintenance on the Maxprop can be done while Exit is wet; but being out of the water sure simplifies things.

Unlimited shore power will give us the ability to decisively establish if our only two and a half year old batteries are actually starting to fail.  We are struggling to understand the electric voodoo which seems to have seized control of our house battery bank since we arrived in Panama —- a problem which has been compounded by the loss of our generator.  Even with solid charges during the day, we find ourselves challenged to maintain reasonable battery voltage levels overnight even with only modest loads. Shore power access will be invaluable in narrowing down the source.  If we are lucky, sulfating damage from what may be chronic undercharging of the batteries in constant use can be reversed and we can salvage the entire battery bank.  That would be sweet.  More likely, at least one or two of the batteries are causing problems with the whole system.  If we are really unlucky, the entire bank may need replacing… six AGM batteries… gulp.  That’s about two grand. 

Projects on the list like “reorganizing belowdecks lockers” offer rainy day fallbacks to keep busy, as well as small scale victories without potential two thousand dollar price tags attached to the resolution.

Ambitious boundary testing tasks will likely be determined by the progress rate of other more pressing things.

Preventive maintenance carries a lot of weight.  I’m one of its biggest advocates.  Still, there is something to be said for not fucking around with things that aren’t broken… or touching Pandora’s Box… or removing the cork for the Genie’s wine bottle… or whatever the saying is.  There’s always a shit-ton of ways to say things when things are important to remember.   Prime example of this dilemma is whether to open the inspection hatches on our two one hundred gallon water tanks.  Hasn’t been done since we bought the boat.  In theory, a good idea… probably.  In theory, maybe a bad idea… possibly.  No issues, but is it better to try to see a potential developing problem than wait to taste a actual problem…?  Hmmmm.  Last time a tank hatch was opened, it took months to sort out resulting the diesel leak.  I can see why this one has remained on the to-do list.  Time will tell.

In some instances, success fosters bravery and further ambition. Other times, it inspires a quick cash-out while one is ahead.

Certain tasks will inevitably not make the cut, when we simply decide enough is enough.  They don’t get crossed off; they don’t go away, they just remain on the to-do list.  The list is never-ending… by design.  That’s why it’s called a list.  Lots of shit always on it.  Another battle for another day.


Getting to Shelter Bay

One of Shelter Bay’s biggest draws for us was the fact that it is not located in Bocas del Toro.  

Make no mistake, we were eternally grateful to have been able to shelter in the Bocas archipelago at the outset of the pandemic.  However, we were also psychologically exhausted from the thirteen month duration.

Some kind of change of scenery was long overdue and a couple of places were on our radar between Bocas and Shelter Bay.

Escudo de Veraguas had been teasing us since our arrival.  Tantalizing drone photos in one of our chart books and Google Maps satellite photos revealed a dense green island with luscious shades of blue surrounding sandy, palm tree lined shores interspersed with craggy, rocky violent surf.  This isolated and barely inhabited island thirty five miles east of Bocas enticed us for what seemed like a perfect stop over.  However, the exposed nature of both the island and its couple of anchorages meant that weather conditions would have to cooperate.

A hundred miles further, along the coast of Panama just outside Shelter Bay, lies Rio Chagres.  The river is fed by the same lake that supplies water to the Panama Canal locks.  A dam prevents access all the way to the lake; but the Chagres River itself is reported to be an extremely isolated slice of unspoiled jungle, potentially populated more by crocodiles than people.  Intriguing enough to warrant a visit.

So… the immediate plan: after picking up a few packages in Bocastown (a mishmash of stuff we’ve ordered from the US) and topping off our provisions and fuel, we leave Bocas del Toro via the Zapatillas, head for Escudo de Veraguas, followed by the Rio Chagres, followed by a haul out at Shelter Bay Marina outside Colon for the shortest duration possible.  After that, we have to play it by ear.  

Panama’s San Blas islands are at the top of our short list.  When we departed Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we were headed for San Blas.  Twenty-four hours into that passage we learned Panama had just declared San Blas closed.  Still, despite months of cruisers posting they’ve just come from, are currently at, or headed to San Blas, the islands are still closed and always have been closed to outsiders since that initial lockdown.

Our second choice at the time became the Columbian island Providencia (about a four hundred mile sail from the Cayman Islands and nearly along our initial course), which it turned out had closed by the time we reached it.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore.  Not only that, later in the year a hurricane would knock Providencia flat.  They are still trying to rebuild the damage.  In retrospect, it is good we didn’t stop there in March 2020.  We may not have gotten out. Still not really an option.

San Andres, our third option fifty miles further to the south, became the third destination… and the third location we were unable to enter.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore… again.  Refugee status was becoming a real concern. 

Fast forward to the present. Now, after almost fourteen months, in a bit of a Twilight Zone / deja vu moment, San Andres may be the go to place after completing our haul-out.  Close.  Easy.  

Still near, but very importantly, not actually in Bocas del Toro.  We can return to Bocas for the height of the hurricane season.

It means we would already be in place for a potential Panama Canal crossing in November.  

In addition, it’s looking more possible that sorting out Covid vaccines by the end of the year in Panama may be an easier prospect than going all the way back to the US, meaning we don’t have to travel by air, much less through Texas or Florida, before getting vaccinated.

Hmmmm…

A plan.  Really, it’s the only plan.  Which is tricksy.  There always needs to be a Plan B.  Because Plan A never survives first contact.

Especially a plan scheduled to commence on 4/20.

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