Friday, November 29, 2013

A Voyage to Remember

                                                       A Voyage to Remember, Miami to Panama

When we were snorkeling in Maui recently, talk turned to snorkeling in Panama and our life there.  I recalled an exciting trip I took bringing a boat to Panama from Florida.  Our friends suggested that the trip was interesting and unique enough that I should record it on paper.  So my attempt follows.

When I was on active duty in the US Navy, 1966-68, I initially attended navigation school in San Diego.  The subject was interesting enough to me that I graduated #1 in my class, and continued to study available nautical references on board the two ships on which I served.  Spending many hours per day on the ship’s bridge deck for months at a time (crossing the Pacific twice, navigating the Mekong Delta, patrolling the Vietnam coast and Gulf of Tonkin, and cruising to Japan for maintenance) provided plenty of time for such review.  I became an enlisted supervisor in the navigation department.  Later, in 1976 while visiting Hawaii, I picked up a reference on Polynesian navigation techniques (We, the Navigators) to help understand how the early voyagers were able to find their way in the ocean’s vastness.  In late 1980, our family was living in Panama.  My assistant and her husband were buying a used 46’ trawler (single diesel engine) in Florida which they intended to bring to Panama to live and cruise on.  They asked me if I would act as navigator for the trip from Miami to Colon, Panama.

They offered to pay for my flight to Miami, which I declined.  If I were to do this, I wanted it to be from a sense of friendship rather than any monetary obligation.  I provided a list of the different nautical charts, references, and instruments which would be necessary for such a trip.  My assistant’s husband, Charles, was a retired US Navy diver who now worked for the Panama Canal Company.  He was to fly to Miami and spend one week examining and preparing the boat, including obtaining the necessary navigation supplies, before we left port.  He was one very tough individual and totally fearless.  He recruited a third crew member, Bill, who I hadn’t previously met but who seemed like a solid character.  It would be just the three of us on a quick voyage back to Panama.

I had talked to one of my patients, then employed as a canal pilot, who had previously been a Caribbean charter captain.  He gave me a route recommendation, which appeared reasonable, and loaned me his sextant.  I flew to Miami on a Saturday in early December, took a cab to the yacht basin, and was prepared to leave harbor the following morning.  Upon arrival, I asked about the navigational charts and references and was stunned to discover that none of the publications I requested had been purchased because it was now December 6 and the contained data was only good through the end of the year.  They were deemed too expensive to obtain for such a short period of use, but, without the sight reduction tables, the sextant was useless.  Also, only one chart had been obtained.  It was an overall chart showing Miami toward the top edge and Panama at the bottom edge.  With such a large area to cover, the chart lacked any detail of depths and features of the various coastlines.  Additionally, the trawler had only been maneuvered on various headings once to check the accuracy and deviation of the compass.  The boat was equipped with a radar set, but the range was only a few miles.  LORAN coverage of the southern Caribbean was lacking at that time, and GPS had not yet been invented.  This was shaping up to be quite a challenge, and I was glad I had some knowledge of navigation without dependency on instruments.

Checking on supplies, the trawler was almost empty with very little on board for ballast, just some groceries, a few tools, and our suitcases.  Our only refrigeration was a single large ice chest.  On Sunday morning, we set out on our adventure.  The first leg was to follow the coast of Florida southwest to Key West, then head straight south to the coast of Cuba.  The hurricane season officially ends November 30; we were now in December but encountering strong winds.  As we headed south from Key West we were headed into night, crossing the Gulf Stream with a strong current from the west opposing strong wind from the southeast which made for large, steep waves against our under-ballasted hull.  Forty-six feet may sound like a large vessel, but, on the open ocean, it is a tiny presence.  The strong wind created a surface haze of spray allowing very limited visibility.  Instead of an enclosed bunk, I had a bed to (try to) sleep in at night.  I tried to hold onto the bed, wrapping my arms and legs around the mattress while resting, but was completely thrown out of the bed once by the lurching hull.  Once I heard a scream from Bill, “We are going over!” as the boat slid sideways down the face of a wave with the rudder seemingly useless.  Fortunately, before we were rolled in a trough by the next wave, the rudder finally caught hold and the bow came around sufficiently to face it.  When it was my time to go on watch, I filled a paper cup with water and held it in my hand.  If I were to fall asleep, I would drop the cup, and it would be my alarm.  It worked.  Everyone needed what rest they could get; there was no asking someone else to take part of your watch.

We were glad to see the morning, but were now presented with a new problem.  Our large chart showed no detail of the Cuban coast.  As we continued south, we wanted to approach the coast as a navigational reference but not get so close that Cuban gunboats would escort us into port.  The solution was Polynesian navigation using cloud formations.  Distinctive cloud formations are found over islands.  Although we never actually saw Cuba, we followed its cloud formations west along the coast while staying offshore.

As evening set in, we were ready to jump off from the west end of Cuba toward Mexico.  It is an easy dead reckoning exercise (hard to miss Mexico) but it also meant re-crossing the Gulf Stream as it flows north.  We subtracted a few degrees from our compass course to allow for the current and set off into the night.  The next morning we sighted Isla Mujeres and pulled into port for refueling.  That afternoon we headed back out to sea with Cozumel to starboard and the Swan islands as our next intended waypoint.  Heading southeast, we encountered rising wind and waves from the northeast.  As the hull angled into the face of each oncoming wave, it was obvious that the "thump, thump, thump" sound of the big single diesel slowed significantly.  The engine was losing power.  Upon inspection it was discovered that sludge, from the diesel fuel we just received, was clogging the fuel filter.  The engine was being starved for fuel.  To clean the fuel filter we needed to stop the engine.  Then it was discovered that the alternator, used to charge the batteries, was not working.  The batteries were very low on electrical charge.  If we stopped the engine, it was doubtful that the batteries held enough juice to restart it.  It was time to change course and our plan.

We turned to run with the wind toward the southwest for a smoother ride and slowed boat speed slightly to match the speed of the waves and reduce engine load.  We shut off almost all electrical equipment to save the batteries, and Charles went down in the belly of the boat, holding electrical wires by hand on the batteries until the battery acid started to bubble, in an attempt to recharge the batteries.  Through the night we steered manually, using a flashlight to read the compass, and no running lights.  When it was my turn to lie in bed, I wondered what the future would hold if that engine stopped; what bit of shoreline or reef would the drifting hull crunch coral on?  Fortunately, the engine kept "thumping".

The next morning we could see some of the Bay Islands near the coast of Honduras in the distance off to port.  The wind and waves were still strong.  Charles thought that the downwind island was Roatan and suggested we aim for it.  I pointed out that if he was wrong, we would be unable to work our way back to any of the islands further upwind.  So we angled our course to port and headed for the nearest island.  It turned out to be Roatan.  The old wooden wharf was on the lee side of the island, allowing us to get out of the wind and motor quietly up to the dock (where I was to receive quite a surprise).  I was standing on the bow, dock line in hand, peering intently at the dock’s shabby state with substantial holes punched in its gray, wooden-planked surface.  I wanted to make sure that when I leaped to the dock to tie up, I didn’t put a foot through one of those holes.  Suddenly, a young black man came out on the dock, and his first words, in clear English were, “Hey, Did you hear that John Lennon was shot and killed?”  Here I thought I was in some remote place far from the beaten path, and I was getting the latest news in my own language!  Mainland Honduras inhabitants speak Spanish, but on the Islands they speak English due to previous British influence.  In Roatan we were able to get an alternator from a wrecked yacht which Charles and Bill then installed.  The fuel filter was also cleaned, and we had a good meal and rest at anchor before leaving the next morning.

We cruised east along the Honduran coast taking turns on watch.  The following morning when I came up on deck, I was immediately concerned.  I looked down at the ocean and saw churned brown water.  I yelled to Charles that we were in too shallow of water and were in danger of running aground.  He replied that the radar range he had taken indicated that we were a sufficient distance from the beach.  I pointed out that the radar was not being reflected from the gently sloping sand beach, but from a line of tall palm trees several hundred yards behind the beach.  We immediately turned out to sea until we were in clear blue water.  Later that day we passed Cabo Gracias a Dios which held a lesson for us.  The Cabo is the outlet of a major river marking the border between Honduras and Nicaragua.  A submerged tongue of silt, an invisible delta, stretches miles out to sea at this location.  You can be miles from the coast and still run aground in very shallow water.  Several ship wrecks stood as evidence.

From here we headed south and slightly east out on the open seas, away from the Nicaraguan coast, with the next intended waypoint being the island of San Andres.  The weather was now good, and we were able to troll and catch fish for dinner.  Our ice chest no longer had any ice or fresh food so the fish was appreciated.  We were again dead reckoning [basically following a compass course allowing for expected currents and other influences] for navigation.  We never actually saw San Andres but were again aided by Polynesian navigation using wave patterns.  Ocean waves obey the same principles of physics as other types of waves.  When ocean waves or swells reach an island, the lines of wave crests are slowed causing a diffraction or bent angle toward the shallow water; on the lee side of the island you will see a cross-hatched pattern of waves from being diffracted around both ends of the island.  This phenomenon extends for miles downstream from the land.  Our intended path was planned so that if we didn’t actually sight the island we would pass on its lee side, and that is what happened.  Watching the wave pattern closely, you could see the oncoming waves transition to a cross-hatched pattern as we passed on the lee side of San Andres and then resume their undisturbed linear pattern as we came back into the clear.  Observing such a pattern, we knew where we were.

For the ancient navigators on the Pacific Ocean you can understand how important it was for them to understand natural phenomena to expand the “target size” of the islands they were seeking.  From an ocean liner, at some height above the water, the horizon is distant, but from the deck of a small boat the horizon may be only 2-3 miles away.  When I was in the US Navy and we were approaching Midway Island, we had the advantage of a huge radar array atop a tall mast and still only detected the low-lying island from about 15 miles away.  The Polynesian navigators understood clouds and waves and had memorized the passing star groupings in an ever-revolving sky with its seasonal variations so that the stars provided a map to follow.  Additionally, they knew the seasonal direction of swells (separate from waves), the patterns of bird flights, as well as other more subtle influences, and had memorized the legends of previous voyages.  Think of it as their equivalent of an advanced college degree.  I had only learned a few of their “beginner” topics.
On a calm evening at sea, we continued southeast toward the coast of Panama.  I miss-judged slightly in estimating the coastal currents; when we sighted the Panama coast the next day we were 10-20 miles east of the Colon harbor entrance.  But it was a familiar coast, where my wife and I had spent numerous snorkeling and sailing trips, and only a short cruise to correct our position.  During the trip, each of us had been emotionally self-contained.  We simply focused on the mechanics of getting through each day.  No long conversations; no sharing of concerns.  I still didn't know Bill's background, and he didn't know mine.  However, at the entrance to the harbor Bill turned to me and said, “If I were to meet someone who wanted to do the same trip with me as crew, I would charge them at least $2000.”  [Remember, these were 1980 dollars]  I turned to him and said, “Funny, I was thinking the same thing, and I came up with the same price.”

Months later, my wife Dawn and I would cruise with Charles and Jean to the San Blas Islands where we did run aground with their trawler, but that is another story.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Instrument Panel

I have been in the process of transferring gauges and switches from the previous hull to the new boat.  I have also added some new instrumentation- an electric horn, and a fuel gauge.  I ordered an in-panel fuel gauge of the same style and manufacturer as the two existing gauges.  While waiting for the new gauge to arrive, I went ahead and cut out holes in the instrument panel for all three gauges.  You know what they say about assuming; when the gauge arrived, it was a smaller diameter than the other two gauges. Thus, I was left with the task of making a larger hole, 3 1/2" dia., into a smaller 2 1/4" diameter hole.  I had to create a 1" thick wooden doughnut to reduce the hole size.  Done, but time consuming.
At this point I am re-thinking the windshield design, something lower and less upright; also see if I can make it simpler to lower the cost.  In the near future, the 50hp engine will be removed from the previous hull; then that hull will be removed from the trailer so that the new boat can be placed on the trailer and the new 75hp engine installed.  Some logistics involved here. I also had to build an engine stand for the 250 pound 50 hp ETEC engine to be stored on after it is off the transom.  Fortunately, I had enough spare lumber in the shop to complete a sturdy stand.