Panama Haul Out 2021 – Shelter Bay Marina

May 7 – June 23, 2021

After essentially being all by ourselves for more than two weeks both at Escudo de Veraguas and Rio Chagres, our arrival at the breakwater just outside the entrance to the Panama Canal was, to say the least, quite a shock to the system.

From peace, quiet, and isolation…

… to a convoy of cargo ships.

Once inside the breakwater, we dropped the hook at the edge of all the hustle and bustle, just outside Shelter Bay Marina, and made the final preparations for our imminent haul out.

Passing the breakwater just outside the Panama Canal

Out of the water and onto the hard…

The actual process of getting a forty two thousand pound boat from a position of floating on the water to balancing on stands in a gravel lot is, fortunately, turned over to professionals.

In some cases, professional means impeccably qualified and experienced. In other cases, it simply means the guy who does it.

Stories were still resonating through the cruising world about a recent mishap with a catamaran being hauled out at a marina on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. The crane lifting the cat out of the water failed, causing the boat to come crashing down with the boom arm on top of it. S/V Ginger Cat, a boat we had dinghied past dozens of times while in Bocas del Toro, was written off as a complete loss.

Even though this would be only the fourth time we had seen Exit precariously hanging in the slings of a huge travel lift, I thought we deserved rather high marks for concealing the inevitable breath-holding and sphincter-tightening that seems to accompany such situations.

On the other hand, this was the first time we had seen a transfer occur from travel lift to trailer. The gravel track leading into the boatyard was too narrow to accommodate the travel lift, so the move had to be done on a trailer that was literally bolted to a forklift.

We were grateful that the crew knew what they were doing.

With Exit finally in place, an array of stick-like and completely inadequate looking metal stands are set into place around the hull, supplementing what can only be described as a pair of stacked oversized Jenga towers, which support most of the weight 0f the boat… yowsa!

An extension ladder now provides the means by which we get access onto and off of the boat. Every… single… time…


The task at hand…

The list was made, and it was long.

The obvious priority was to address anything below the waterline while we were on the hard and dry. We already knew our most pressing issue was getting more anti-fouling paint on the bottom, clearly indicated by places where the paint had worn completely off, exposing the barrier coat of epoxy underneath. Maintenance on the MaxProp and replacing the protective underwater zincs could be done anytime, but being out of the water certainly made things far easier.

However, any painting would be contingent upon a thorough inspection for any suspected points of corrosion, a shitload of scraping and sanding, as well as some cooperative weather.

If we were lucky, spots that still had good bottom paint could be lightly sanded and painted over. Any points where corrosion was even suspected would be taken all the way down to shiny bare aluminium, and recoated with multiple barrier coats of epoxy before being painted.

Knowing we would have very little access to equipment and tools in the Shelter Bay Marina boatyard, an electric grinder was one of the things we purchased before leaving Bocas del Toro. This would make quick work of the sanding, but the fact that we had no vacuum system to contain the dust meant it would be incredibly messy (most likely to the chagrin of any neighbors) and it would take off far more paint than we wanted (after all, the goal was keeping as much paint ON the boat as possible). So we opted to use the grinder only when we needed to get all the way down to bare metal.

Clean-er… but, by no means clean.

A number of things occurred to me during this process…

#1- I should be able to swim for quite some time without having any algae growing on me.

#2- After fourteen months of global Covid pandemic, the mask actually seemed much more normal than I expected.

#3- Even with a palm tree in the background, this did not feel like paradise!

During this time, Kris was locked in mortal combat with the dinghy, cleaning both it and the protective chaps we were so happy to have gotten while we were at the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Fortunately, though almost every task was within the realm of possibility for us to undertake ourselves, the marina had a sail loft with a very capable canvas worker who was able to sort out some minor repairs on our dinghy chaps, mainsail cover, staysail, and Isenglass window (which had taken on more of the transparency properties of a wall than a window and the water resistant properties of an open door).

It seemed that one of the biggest challenges we faced was not the ability to do things; but rather, the ability to get things done. The forecasts we looked to in attempting to plan our daily agenda were schizophrenic, conflicting, and inaccurate. Depending on who you talk to (and what island you are next to), Panama seems to have rainy seasons throughout the year. Of course, June was supposed to be entering “the rainy season”.

Hearing that Bocas had been getting non-stop rain for quite some time, we were grateful to be where we currently were. Still, nearly every day seemed to either flirt with the threat of rain…

… or simply deliver on that threat.

Even if you can’t make water, sometimes you can still catch it

Slowly, steadily… progress continued.

On the hull, questionable spots were sanded down to bare metal for inspection.

Eventually, the areas that had been sanded to bare metal were all covered with multiple coats of epoxy, the masking was complete, and bottom paint began to be applied. Seven coats at the waterline was the goal.

Busy times. It was eight days before we took our first official break and visited the pool. But, even at the pool, one only had to look over their shoulder to be instantly reminded that a shitload of work remained.

So, with a relentless laser focus, we pressed forward. By the end of two weeks, everything (with the exception of the centerboard and under the stands) had at least one coat of Trilux 33 anti-fouling paint.

Exactly seven days later, we put on the final coat of bottom paint.

That morning, for the first time in the three weeks since our arrival, we were greeted in the cockpit by a visitor who had never before ventured up the ladder leading precariously up onto our transom. We called our new friend Morris, though it turned out he was actually a she. It was as though Morris was telling us, “You realize what today is, don’t you?”

It was final coat of paint day!

With the last coat of paint applied, MaxProp serviced, and new hull zincs installed, everything we could do below the waterline was done until we were back in the travel lift slings again.

To be sure, revealing that clean, crisp line along the edge of brand new bottom paint as you carefully peel back the blue masking tape certainly generates an immensely satisfying feeling.


Extracurricular Activities

Though much of our attention was dedicated towards work below the waterline, we managed to successfully juggle a number of other tasks simultaneously.

Not so much distractions.

More like side projects.

An unanticipated survey had to be done as a requirement to renew our insurance. However, no drama ensued and we actually found the Panamanian surveyer to be well more thorough and personable than the surveyer we had hired in Maryland when we first bought Exit.

After our harrowing night time drama with the stern anchor at Escudo de Veraguas, the thought of deploying our stern anchor again was not an appealing prospect. However, if it came time to use it again, we realized that the rust buildup on the chain was becoming very problematic.

In fact, the rusty ball of corroded metal near the bitter end of the chain could easily jam up and completely destroy our windlass. We weren’t ready to replace the chain at this point; so… the next best thing was to lower the whole mess down onto the gravel, grab a hammer, beat the shit out of the chain and knock the rust clean off. A temporary fix as well as good cathartic therapy. The ball of rust that comprised the last three feet of chain just had to be hacksawed off.

When we purchased Exit in 2017, one of the appliances already aboard was a washing machine. While this seemed like a great commodity at that time, in reality the thing was dead weight.

It hadn’t been run in over a decade. We learned it would consume a ridiculous amount of precious water, if it even ran. And, though the washing machine took up a massive amount of space, its actual capacity was minuscule.

A bucket with soap and water had been more than adequate for the past nearly four years now.

So, in an inspired moment of ambitious insight and energy, I decided it was right now that this fucking thing was going away.

Relative to most washing machines it was tiny. Still, it was one heavy and bulky son of a bitch. The limited space to work made it a challenge, to say the least. And the eight foot drop off the transom made it even harder. But as is always the case when you’re living on a boat, in the end, persistence and sheer tenacity won out.

It was a good decision.

Once back in the water, we never would have gotten it into the dinghy. And we would never have been callous enough to simply throw it overboard.

Bye, bye. And good riddance.

Voodoo electricity…

Our house battery bank had been giving us grief for nearly a year. What appeared to be a continuing decline of capacity plagued us to the point where, despite receiving a solid battery charge during the day, we were facing critical charge levels by the next morning even if we turned off the fridge overnight.

It wasn’t a matter of lack of attention or concern.

Rather, we thinks… a combination of consistent cloudy stretches normal to Panama which affected our solar charging, a lack of moving about which would normally help with some engine charge, the death of our generator (whose sole purpose was battery charging), the added power draw of using the water maker, as well as (probably more than anything else) an ongoing struggle to understand both the fundamentals and subtleties of the mystic and elusive voodoo known as electricity.

A seemingly never-ending process of research and troubleshooting preceded our arrival at Shelter Bay. Confusing. Frustrating. Concerning. Our dear friends on both S/V Avigna and S/V Cetacea deserve big shout outs for providing repeated guidance, reassurance, inspiration, and therapy.

Ultimately, we suspected that both misinterpreted information and flawed charging strategies had led to us inadvertently killing the six batteries we had purchased less than three years ago. Our current luxury of unlimited shore power gave us the possibility of finally answering that question.

Converting our salon into a temporary laboratory, six separate battery capacity tests revealed an even more dire situation than we had thought. One of the six batteries was operating at only twenty four percent capacity… and that was the best one. The worst performer came in at only an astonishing nine percent!

The cable connecting us to shore power was truly acting as life support for our house battery bank.

The next day we ordered six new Lifeline AGM batteries from the same guys we got our windlass, chain, and anchor through while we were in Bocas.

Cha-ching!


Houston, we are go for launch

T-minus thirty six hours…

Twenty three days into our haul out we were finally ready to go back into the slings. We arranged to be lifted at the end of the day on Saturday, which gave us until Monday to get our centerboard and areas we hadn’t been able to get to because of the stands sanded and painted.

Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from the water onto stands is a task that is best not observed by the faint of heart. Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from stands onto a trailer is a task best not observed by anyone who owns the boat being moved.

This sphincter clenching process first involves taking the stands, which already seem completely inadequate in structure, and inverting them from a position in which the three legs are equally supported by a welded triangular base into a position where each stand is tilted and ridiculously balanced on one edge of that triangle.

The result is threefold.

Number one, it creates barely enough space for the trailer to be slid in between the stands and the blocks underneath Exit.

Number two, it creates a brief period where the entire weight of our boat is resting solely upon the two oversized wooden block Jenga towers; the metal stands appear to be doing little more than trying to keep Exit from toppling sideways.

Number three, it creates a perfect opportunity for a grown adult to justifiably shit themselves repeatedly.

Zero margin for error

To the yard workers’ credit, they managed to thread the needle and everything went off without a hitch. Fortunately, rather than the trailer knocking Exit off its stands, it was the staff who kicked over the tower of blocks after the trailer had lifted Exit. Whew!

For an encore, the yard workers backed Exit, perched atop the trailer, on a narrow and uneven temporary gravel road the entire way to the travel lift, which was too wide to fit on the road. Bravo performance!

It looks like either Exit is growing or Steve is shrinking

Eventually, Exit was sitting in the travel lift slings right next to the haul out bay. We were so close to the water, but not quite read to splash.

So close…

Now, twelve feet from the ground to the deck, it was twice as intimidating being on the ladder, and twice as much of a pain in the ass getting on and off the boat. Not to mention the hundred yard walk to the bathrooms.

We rigged up a lift to make the challenge of getting stuff up and down a bit easier.

The remaining work to do on the centerboard and spots that were concealed by stands turned out a bit more extensive than we anticipated but nothing that threatened to derail our launch.

Fair to say that, despite seeing plenty of storm clouds and rain during the previous three weeks, the weather gods were by and large rather kind to us.

Another point of distraction: Uncertain of the proper terminology “by and large” or “by in large”, Google informed me that the term “by and large” has a nautical origin. Apparently, the “by” referring to being closed hauled (or sailing as close into the wind as possible) versus “large” which referred to sailing aft of the beam (or just slightly downwind) — the wide range of sailing points carrying over into the “in general” or “on the whole” sense of the term (source: marriam-webster.com).

I guess you’re never too old to get a little less dumb or a little more salty.

Anyway… by and large, while we experienced near daily rain showers, there were only a few instances during the haul out where an entire day was lost to shitty weather. We seemed to be particularly fortunate on days where timing was critical. And when you’re painting, the nervous tension of the threat of rain is always better than actually feeling the rain drops.

With the final drops of paint transferred from the bottom of the paint can to the bottom of Exit, we were able to enjoy a well deserved quiet moment of victorious celebration. The beer was no different from the cans of local Balboa we had become accustomed to over the past fourteen months… and, yet, these particular beers seemed profoundly cold and exceptionally tasty.

Salud!

The following day dark clouds lurked ominously above us from horizon to horizon. But it didn’t matter, cause we were gonna get wet anyway.

Launch time

We hadn’t escaped the clutches of the marina yet. But alas, Exit was finally back where she belonged… in the water. A handful of things needed to get done while we awaited the arrival of our new batteries and at least now we didn’t have to climb down a ladder and walk fifty yards just to pee.

The laundry water was a testimony to our previous three weeks of hard work. Finally, our clothes were far dirtier than anything else on the boat…

And it turned out we apparently had a new crew member. After discovering our stowaway, Lizzy was gladly welcomed aboard as Ambassador of Goodwill and Mosquito Consumption.

Moments of gastronomical bliss

Sometimes guilty pleasures (very different from politician Matt Gaetz’s self-described naughty favors) simply must be indulged.

While making only our second run into Colon to shop since arriving at Shelter Bay, we found ourselves with an extra fifteen minutes before the van was scheduled to leave returning to the marina.

What better way to kill that time than with a DQ Blizzard?

An hour later, while we were still unpacking bags back on the boat, we heard a rap on the hull outside. It was our neighbor two slips down, who explained he was preparing to haul out his boat for long term storage and had some perfectly good unused food he had provisioned while in Puerto Rico that needed to be gotten rid of.

Enthusiastically, we accepted the offer. Looking inside the bag, we were stunned. Pure gold had just materialized before our eyes…

The following day was my birthday. I had won the trifecta of gastronomical bliss.

The breakfast that Kris made was a decadent home run… she had undoubtably knocked it clean outta the park. Thanks for that, my love!

Oh ya… and how can I forget. Our celebration dinner a week earlier, the day after launching Exit back into the water. Cheese fondue… epic!


The weather, which had been quite cooperative with us while we were trying to paint, seemed to take a definitively more humid turn. Ultimately, we didn’t care that much because we were back in the water, even though we still longed to be out of the marina.

The alternative to rain seemed to be an intense bones-to-dust heat that was brutal to endure. Exposure to only a few afternoons like that quickly clarify how the concept of siestas may have evolved. Hotter than inside the Devil’s ball sack may very well be a phrase I coined, but I’m not sure how quickly it will catch on…

Nevertheless, we continued to press forward, diligently ticking off task after task.

A hatch whose hinge had seized up and hadn’t been open for a year managed to get sorted out.

Our Bimini cover came back from the sail loft with a brand new Isenglass window. The next time we raised our sails, it would actually be possible to see our wind indicator at the top of the mast. Woohoo!

Moments of clarity

A truly sobering moment was the prospect of drilling holes below the waterline of our dinghy in order to install the mounts for launching wheels. We had obtained them while we were in Bocas from a couple we met, also from Washington state. They had been sailing for decades and now, one in the sixties and one in the eighties, stilled live aboard their sailboat. Cudos!

After purchasing the wheels for a mere forty dollars, we learned that the Danard brand was considered the Rolls Royce of dinghy wheels, retailing for three hundred bucks brand new. Score!

With our mess making largely complete and our access to unlimited water nearing an end, an onslaught of cleaning ensued. The cockpit looked cleaner than it had for a long time. The deck was largely free of bird shit and Panama dirt which had being accumulating. The dodger and Bimini were as clean as they were ever going to get and had multiple new coats of waterproofing (we had given up on small, expensive aerosol cans and graduated to gallons of siliconized sealer made for concrete, brick, and tile that had to be literally painted on with a roller or brush).

At long last, the moment arrived. Our six new Lifeline AGM batteries and a Honda EU2200 generator showed up on the dock.

$3500 with a view

Aside from a final provisioning run, this was all that was holding us here at the marina. Get the batteries installed… get some food and fuel… get the fuck outta here.

When Kris posted the above photo on Facebook, a number of friends thought we had purchased $3500 worth of wine. Alas…most of the wine we brought aboard was boxed wine rather than boxes of wine. The truth is, our wine provisions rang in at more like thirty five bucks instead of thirty five hundred.

At $3.50 per liter… IT MAY NOT BE GOOD WINE, BUT IT’S CLOS(E)!

Comedy is not pretty.

Jose, one of the marina employees, had been the most outwardly friendly, smiling, and engaging of all the non-management staff we interacted with while we were hauled out. When he learned we were getting new batteries, he perked up and got even friendlier. I imagine the potential income from recycling the lead inside the old batteries offered him a significant supplement to a barely adequate salary.

For us, the hassle and cost of taking them twenty miles to a retail store that would give us a hundred dollars for the lot was not very appetizing. On the other hand, paying forward good karma was.

In the end, Christmas came early for Jose. Good people deserve good things.

Feliz Navidad Jose

We had learned many expensive lessons with our previous battery bank and hoped to not repeat this whole replacement process for quite some time.

The new generator was an imperfect solution to our dead Fischer Panda generator, which had been on Exit when we purchased her. At $15,000 new, the old generator was ridiculous overkill for the sole purpose of backup battery charger. Even the part we suspected we needed for the repair was $5000. We had decided, if we could ever resuscitate the thing, we would just get rid of it.

The only other possible use we could have had for the Panda was as a 220 volt source of power for a potential dive compressor… but it turned out even that was not necessary.


Confessions

Okay.

The real reason we came to Shelter Bay Marina… not really, but it sure made the rest of the process more bearable.

A dive compressor, with only three hours of use, and a couple of extra scuba tanks became available from a friend we met in Bocas now selling his boat at Shelter Bay. In the end, despite the fact that we were already hemorrhaging money just being in the marina, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally become completely scuba self-sufficient. Sweeeeet!

Our transom has a locker that was built specifically to house the life raft. Smart design, conveniently accessible, and excellent protection from the environment.

Exit’s dedicated life raft locker

As it turns out, the dive compressor is almost exactly the same dimensions as the life raft. We already considered the transom our dive platform. What better location to fill tanks?

Come on… really.

Abandoning ship is soooooo overrated.

A perfect fit

Just to clarify: washing machine… gone. Life raft… simply moved to a secure, undisclosed location. Questionable priorities? Maybe… but we’re not idiots.

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